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80-year-old jewel thief faces 5 years in prison

Doris Payne's bid for release on bail before sentencing is thwarted by surveillance video of her casing a Neiman Marcus jewelry counter while awaiting trial.

January 15, 2011|By Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times
  • Doris Payne is seen in her jail cell in 2005 in Las Vegas, where she pawned a $31,500, three-stone diamond ring that she stole from a Neiman Marcus in Palo Alto.
Doris Payne is seen in her jail cell in 2005 in Las Vegas, where she pawned… (Jae C. Hong / Associated…)

An 80-year-old woman who authorities said spent decades as an international jewel thief faces more than five years in state prison after she was convicted this week of stealing an $8,900 diamond ring from a San Diego mall.

But her efforts to be released on bail before sentencing were thwarted when prosecutors discovered surveillance tape of her casing a department store jewelry counter.

Doris Payne was convicted Wednesday of grand theft and burglary by a San Diego County jury in connection with the Jan. 2 theft of the ring from a Macy's department store. She later told detectives she sold the ring for $1,800, officials said.

Defense attorney Gretchen Von Helms unsuccessfully argued for her client's release on bail pending sentencing after Deputy Dist. Atty. John Pro presented evidence that while awaiting trial in the San Diego case, Payne was captured on surveillance video at a Scottsdale, Ariz., Neiman Marcus store examining the jewelry counter.

Von Helms argued at trial that Payne's arrest in connection with the San Diego theft was a case of mistaken identity and that the culprit was a copycat.

"It's a case of reasonable doubt given that another women who looked very similar to her [Payne] who was filmed in the Macy's two days after the fact," Von Helms said.

But Pro argued that the defendant's chosen career path — as well as her own words on the subject — spoke volumes.

"The defendant literally has spent her life doing nothing but stealing high-end jewelry," Pro said. "She said it herself. That's what she does, and that's what she did in this case. It's a classic life of crime."

Payne, whose life was to be the subject of a proposed Halle Berry movie and who was being filmed by a documentary crew — is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 9.

Born in 1930 in the small coal-mining town of Slab Fork, W.Va., Payne said in a 2008 interview with The Times that she stole her first diamond in her late 20s, hoping to raise money to help her mother leave an abusive husband.

She said she had no idea how many jewels she had stolen, but that her career as a thief had spanned five decades. She said she honed her craft from New York and Las Vegas to London, Paris, Monte Carlo and Tokyo.

The targets were always the finest stores, she said, adding that she would blend in, tell a great story and take advantage of a distracted clerk.

In time, improvements in security technology caught up with Payne.

In 1999, she was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison after stealing a 5-carat diamond ring from a Neiman Marcus in Denver.

While on parole in Colorado in 2005, she visited other states, taking an $8,500 ring in Nevada and a $31,500, three-stone diamond ring with a platinum band from a Neiman Marcus in Palo Alto, The Times reported. When police interviewed her, Payne admitted stealing the ring, telling them her occupation was "jewel thief," officials said.

She eventually was sentenced to two to five years for pawning the stolen Palo Alto ring in Las Vegas, as well as stealing a ring in Nevada.

In the spring of 2008, Payne completed her sentence in Colorado and was returned to California, where she was released on parole.

A year ago, Payne was arrested on suspicion of grand theft after security guards at the Saks Fifth Avenue store at South Coast Plaza accused her of taking the tags off a Burberry trench coat valued at $1,300 and walking out without paying.

Over the years, authorities have said Payne's tactics have remained surprisingly constant. She usually arrives at stores dressed in outfits with extremely deep pockets, which she uses to store the merchandise she steals.

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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