Jewelry thief Doris Payne strikes again at Saks in Atlanta

Doris Payne's methods haven't changed much in 60 years as an international jewelry thief.

The 85-year-old woman still dresses in fine clothing with deep pockets, heads to high-end departments stores and charms the sales staff as they bring expensive jewels out for her viewing. At five-feet-five inches and 135 pounds, she appears harmless. But with a rapid sleight of hand -- and a staged distraction -- she makes the items she covets disappear.

Those items have included a 10.5 carat diamond ring from Cartier, a three stone diamond and platinum ring from Neiman Marcus, and on Friday, a pair of $690 Christian Dior earrings from Saks Fifth Avenue at Phipps Plaza.

Her latest caper landed her in Fulton County jail for several days on a charge of theft by shoplifting greater than $500. An active warrant in North Carolina for similar charges kept her under a hold in the county jail, said attorney, Shawn McCullers. Payne was expected to be released Tuesday, he said.

"We called and talked to [officials in North Carolina] and they decided they wouldn’t extradite her which is often the case for a bunch of reasons. We voiced our concerns about the frailty of her health," said McCullers.

But despite age related illnesses, Payne shows no signs of slowing down and no remorse for her crimes.

"I don't have any regrets about stealing jewelry. I regret getting caught," said Payne in the 2013 documentary, "The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne" in which she, her best friend and adult children reflected on her six decades of crime.

The film ends with Payne serving time in California for taking a one-and-a-half-carat diamond ring from a Macy's store in San Diego.  The judge gave Payne the maximum five years and she served two and a half before returning to probation in Los Angeles. But she soon picked up another shoplifting case in Palm Springs, pled guilty and got four years, said attorney Gretchen Von Helms who has represented Payne on several occasions.

Since California law now dictates that non-violent prisoners can't go to prison, Payne got a split sentence -- some jail time in local jail and some time served under supervision. Then in July, she racked up another shoplifting charge at David Yurman in the Southpark area of Charlotte.

Store employees believed she stole a $33,000 engagement ring. Law enforcement officials sent an arrest warrant to pick her up, but when they showed up at her door in California, she was too sick and they wouldn’t take her, Von Helms said. Which is how she ended up in Georgia at Saks Fifth Avenue on Friday afternoon with a pair of $690 earrings in her deep pockets.

“She is charming. She’s wonderful. She’s eccentric," said Von Helms. "I understand that the shopkeepers have a different opinion, but they all agreed she was charming and friendly and nice. These are all adjectives that other people who have contact with her, even her victims in previous cases, would say describe her personality.”

Payne is such a captivating subject, her story was once scheduled to become a movie starring Oscar-winning actress Halle Berry. The status of that project is unknown, but Payne is keeping her name in the spotlight.

"At some point I would imagine that this would get old, but what that point is, I don’t know," said Von Helms. "She seems to do very well when she is being supervised and when she is tracked. Would a monitoring system be appropriate? That's a question to be asked of someone who is charged with punishing her."

Payne, born in Slab Fork, West Virginia in 1930, told the Los Angeles times in 2008 that she stole her first diamond when she was in her twenties. She sold it and gave her mother the money to leave an abusive husband.

From there Payne was hooked. Using Town and Country magazine as a guide to help her recognize fine jewelry, she pulled off thefts in New York, Las Vegas, Monaco, Tokyo and Paris. At one point, she had a partner in crime who would sell off the expensive baubles, but they parted ways when he offered to testify against her after an arrest.

Payne loves to tell her stories and has at times said she was motivated to steal jewelry in an effort to even the scales of racism and poverty. She comes alive when describing how she would charm and confuse sales staff at stores such as Bulgari, Tiffany and other shops.

She detailed how she once avoided serving time in Europe by jumping off a train and hopping a plane back to the U.S. Or the time she went to Monte Carlo after seeing the movie "To Catch a Thief" and nabbed a giant diamond from Cartier when she claimed to be the wife of director, Otto Preminger.

Payne said she wanted to be a good mother, but her children were mostly raised by their father, according to her daughter, Donna. Her daughter said she never saw her mother until she was 16-years-old. The following year, she discovered her mother was a career criminal. The only time Payne appears uncomfortable in the documentary about her life is when she is on camera with her son, Ronald, who she suspects is a drug user.

Payne currently lives in Long Beach, Calif., but will likely have a case pending here. She has told her attorney she is willing to be present. "I don't think she has ever missed a court appearance," said McCullers.

Despite having stolen about $2 million worth of goods in her storied history, Payne has said she has no money. Her pattern of serving time, getting out for good behavior and wasting no time in getting back to work may be as much a matter of survival as it is a thrill, but it is a process that Payne has mastered.

And it keeps her name in the headlines.

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About the Author

Nedra Rhone
Nedra Rhone
Nedra Rhone has been a features reporter with the AJC for 10 years. She’s written about everything from fashion to food to news.