On a summer day in 1974, a stylish light-skinned American Black woman with a polished demeanor and captivating eyes stepped out of the Hôtel de Paris in Monte Carlo. She told those who made her acquaintance that fateful day that she was the wife of famous director Otto Preminger, making her instantly well received. Those who knew her personally, however, called her Doris.
Doris Marie Payne, then 44, had good reason to hide her real identity while in Monaco, and it wasn’t because she was connected to a celebrity and craving anonymity as she shopped for pricey jewelry at Cartier during this final stop on her whirlwind European getaway.
In the luxury boutique, she recalls in the documentary The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne, “The salesperson had rounded up pieces to show me,” including a 10.5-carat diamond ring worth $550,000, or around $2.5 million today, “but he set it down and went to [another] patron who had just come into the shop.”
After she left and was safely in a cab, Payne realized she had made a huge mistake when she looked at the bauble she had just swiped: The price tag contained zero after zero. “Never saw that many in my life,” she says. “I broke out in a sweat and everything. I was freaked out thinking I had taken something that the whole world was going to be looking for.”
Police indeed went on the immediate hunt for her and the ring, and they found the former but not latter at the airport in Nice. Once detained, Payne managed to surreptitiously slip the ring into her mouth, starting an impressive series of juggling that kept the prized piece of jewelry from being found. First, a sneeze delivered the ring into a tissue, and it was later hidden in her pantyhose during a strip search. Despite police not locating the ring, Payne was escorted to a hotel to be held in custody (Monte Carlo had no facilities at the time for detained women), and they placed a female guard outside her door.
Payne, still on her game despite the setback, asked the unsuspecting officer for a nail clipper from her confiscated luggage, as well as a needle and thread to mend a hem. “I used the toenail clippers to pry the diamond out of the mounting,” she says of her biggest score ever. “I threw the mounting in the Mediterranean.”
She then sewed the ring into her girdle. Nobody ever found the diamond, which Payne later sold in New York City.
“I’ve been a jewel thief for many many years,” Payne says. “I am exceptionally proud of my being the very opposite of what is expected.”
The daughter of a Black father and Cherokee mother, Payne grew up impoverished in Slab Fork, West Virginia. Now 92, she taught herself the skills that she would use throughout her life to pilfer jewels. “From a little girl, I liked to dress up. I had my purse and my hat,” she says. “I played a game by myself called Ms. Lady.”
Criminal reports filed over the decades detail Payne’s ability to put shopkeepers at ease. “She was attractive,” police wrote after one theft. In another document, officers noted Payne was “so sharply dressed” and “looked like a model.”
Once Payne found her ideal mark — someone who was the “combination of eager to please and stupid,” she writes in her memoir, Diamond Doris — she pounced. The seasoned jewel thief ’s modus operandi was to dazzle, confuse, acquire and then quickly slip away. According to Payne, she would request to see multiple pieces and then try them on at a dizzying pace, moving the jewelry around too fast for the shopkeeper to keep track. At times, she’d distract the salesperson and hide the piece, only to “discover” it when its disappearance was noted, building trust with them. With the next distraction, she’d grab the real object of her desire and then leave.
Payne turned out to be just as good at slipping out of custody as she was stores. She escaped multiple times after she was held on suspicion of stealing. “I never went to jail and stayed,” she says. “That is the reputation I wanted. I knew I could get out.”
Her favorite catch-me-if-you-can moment occurred one night in 1980 after she “had a field day” stealing Rolexes from a shop in Zurich, Switzerland. Following the caper, she went to a nightclub and broke her rule of not drinking alcohol. “Next thing I know, I’m up and dancing,” she says. “I’m having a great time.”
Little did she know that the club broadcast the dance floor to the city’s residents so they could watch the revelry at home. When she left the nightclub, authorities nabbed her and escorted her on to what should have been a nonstop train heading to the embassy in Geneva, where she was to be detained. “It stopped for water. I jumped off the train,” Payne says, noting she ended up with scratches and thorns in her hair after running through a field. “It was funny too, later, because I looked so bad. I looked awful.”
Through the years, Payne has used at least 32 aliases, 11 social security numbers and passports in nine different names. She’s unapologetic and insists her elaborate ruses and crimes have always been victimless and have “nothing to do with my moral fiber.”
San Diego Police Detective Thomas Jacques disagrees. In the documentary about Payne’s life he admits she “was a nice old lady” and “seemed like my mom and grandparents” after he came into contact with her following her January 2010 arrest for stealing an $8,900 emerald-cut diamond ring from Macy’s. But, he adds, “I think she’s romanticized this beyond what it really is. She’s a thief and what she does affects other people.”
Still, California-based lawyer Gretchen Von Helms, employed by Payne as her defense attorney, once told a judge in court her client “never hurts anybody” and “is not forceful.”
In recent years, surveillance video, the Internet and other modern innovations have curtailed Payne’s ability to successfully camouflage her identity and operate as a criminal in cities around the world — not that she’s stopped trying. In 2011, at age 80, she was found guilty of two counts of theft and sentenced to five years behind bars in connection with the Macy’s case. She was released because of overcrowding less than three years later, but she’s since been arrested multiple times for pilfering jewelry, including in 2013 when she lifted a 12-carat white gold ring worth $22,000 from a boutique in Palm Desert, California.
“Stealing jewelry, it was just exciting. It also became a social outlet for me. That was my everything,” the nonagenarian says of her 60-year criminal career. “I don’t regret being a jewel thief. Do I regret getting caught? Yes.”
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