Like most little girls Doris Marie Payne played dress-up. She’d put on a hat and loop a purse over her arm and pretend to be far away from her impoverished life in Slab Fork, West Virginia. It was a game she called “Miss Lady” and good practice for when she grew up and began a seven decade career as an international jewel thief.
In her more than 70 years traveling the world, she stole millions of dollars in precious gems. Tied to crimes from California to New York and Paris to Tokyo and glamorous places in between, she used nine passports and cast herself into different personas with multiple aliases, ten social security numbers, and nine dates of birth.
Doris’s modus operandi was simple. Dressed in expensive, designer clothing and carrying a costly handbag, she posed as a wealthy woman when entering a jewelry store. At 5’9”, she had a regal bearing and a charismatic personality. She would ask one of the employees to see several pieces of jewelry. As she compared pricey baubles and tried them on to admire in the mirror, she would engage the clerk in conversation. Her pleasant manner and charm would inevitably trick the clerk into forgeting how many pieces were outside the display case. When the clerk was suitably confused, Doris would leave the store with one or two pieces of bling.
The first time she thought about stealing anything was when she was a youngster. She went into a shop looking for a watch. The owner was helping her when another customer came into the store and interrupted them. The owner didn’t want to be seen helping a black person. Not noticing that she still had the watch on, he asked her to leave. She did so with the watch attached to her wrist, according to one account. In a 2013 documentary, “The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne,” she said she realized at that moment just how easy stealing could be.
Growing up in the 1930s, Doris often witnessed her father abusing her mother. Her coal miner father was African-American and her seamstress mother was Native American. Doris claimed to be a thief out of necessity. Her first arrest was in 1952, but she appeared to be active long before that. While quite young, she boarded a bus to Pittsburg where she stole a $22,000 diamond then sold it for cash so her mother could leave her father.
The dates and capers are hard to untangle. Out of her nearly 20-page-long rap sheet, her theft of a 10-carat diamond ring valued at a half a million dollars is most notable. Doris boosted it from Monte Carlo in the 1970s. Authorities chased her to France and caught up with her in Nice. She was extradited back to Monte Carlo and held for nine months while authorities hunted for the ring. One account said she pried the stone from the mounting, discarded it then sewed the stone into the hem of her girdle. The authorities never found it, and she was let go. According to the story from History.com, she sold it in New York.
At one point she found a fence for her gems in Cleveland through a prostitute.
Doris’s criminal career included snatching a 3.5 carat diamond ring in Palm Desert, California, an entry on Wikipedia claims. She was 83-years-old at the time. She was sentenced to two years in prison for that heist but was released after a few months due to overcrowding.
One would think at her advanced age, she would have retired from the diamond business, but according to the Daily Beast, in 2015 she was accused of boosting $33,000 ring from a mall jewelry store in Charlotte, North Carolina. She was wanted by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg sheriff’s department for that theft.
But she wasn’t done with her crime spree. Months after the Charlotte theft, she was arrested in Atlanta for making away with a pair of $690 pair of Christian Dior earrings from Saks Fifth Avenue. It wasn’t her first lift from Saks. A few years earlier, she tore the tags off a Burberry trench coat costing $1300, put it on and walked out the door of a Costa Mesa store. In 2016, she pocketed a $2000 Lagos diamond necklace from a department store in Dunwoody, a suburb of Atlanta. She was caught by a security guard.
The most recent case as of this writing was in 2017 when she swiped $86.22 worth of items from a Walmart store outside of Atlanta. On probation at the time and wearing an ankle monitor, she was charged with a misdemeanor.
“I don’t have any regrets about stealing jewelry,” she told one of her jailers, according to the Daily Beast. “I regret getting caught.”