America’s Best Jewel Thief Is An 85-Year-Old Black Woman


The elegant Doris Payne has a 20-page rap sheet and was hunted for years by Interpol—and she’s loved every minute of it.

If diamonds are a girl’s best friend, Doris Payne hasn’t met a stranger in well over six decades.

A coal miner’s daughter born in rural Slab Fork, West Virginia, the 85-year-old might well be the most prolific international jewel thief the world has ever known. Payne, who by all accounts may never have held down a job on “the books,” has made a better than healthy living hopscotching around the globe in pursuit of shiny baubles and other luxury goods.

Armed with nothing more than an easy smile, designer clothes, and an exquisite handbag, Payne routinely charmed jewelry story employees out of their wares. The final take has never been officially tallied, but the largess gleaned from her illicit escapades is thought to easily number in the tens of millions. At one time, she was the subject of criminal warrants on two continents and tracked by Interpol, the 190 member multi-national organization that hunts fugitives.

Hers is a story that might be better suited for Hollywood. Only Payne doesn’t look like Matt Damon and her trickery is decidedly lower tech than an installment of Ocean’s Eleven. Payne prefers to work alone, her thievery fueled solely by heavy doses of charisma and guile. She has been called a one-woman gang, to her chagrin, except the only weapon she carries is the demeanor and fashion sense of a high-living socialite.

Following her storied exploits for more than a decade, I wasn’t prepared for the eloquent well-appointed woman I encountered. I felt the air change as Payne bounded the narrow stairwell and quietly entered the upper conference room of her attorney’s suburban Atlanta offices. Marveling at her patent leather, lace-up Chanel oxfords and pin-stripped stockings, her grace was unmistakable.

“It isn’t every day that you meet a jewel thief,” I said out of earshot, “and certainly not one who reminds you of your banana pudding-baking grandmama.”

She took her place at the head of the table, removed her pricey sunglasses, clasped her hands before her and waited. I noted her veiny hands, her deeply creased yet smooth skin, the softness in her strong but trusting glance.

Payne told her story simply, as if she was taking a mid-afternoon stroll through Piedmont Park when the dogwoods bloomed in the springtime. She spoke like a woman who wasn’t wanted on an outstanding warrant in Mecklenberg County, North Carolina, as if she wasn’t facing a new felony shoplifting charge for allegedly stealing a $690 pair of earrings from Saks Fifth Avenue.

“I was a shopper,” she told me at one point. “I knew what I wanted.”

What she wanted was a 3.5-carat ring in Palm Desert, California, and another worth $33,000 from a store in Charlotte, North Carolina. Perhaps she is most infamous for a Monte Carlo caper in the 1970s that yielded a 10-carat diamond ring valued at over a half million dollars. There have been dozens of swoops since then, she readily admits.

“I used to go in stores, slip something into my pocketbook and give it back,” she says of the early years. “It was all in fun.”

Posing as a well-moneyed customer with long dollars to spend, Payne learned to simply make them all forget. An insurance payout, an inheritance. She wooed her victims with detailed backstories. Often, it would be hours before a store realized what she’d done and, by then, Payne had disappeared in broad daylight. She’d hop in a cab, a bus, or subway train and vanish into thin air.

And for that, Payne has a 20-page rap sheet in the U.S. alone. She is a celebrity among retail store security teams and has “no-trespassing” agreements with many of the country’s most prominent retail chains.

“I went to three countries in three days,” she says of her first trip abroad. “I went to London, then Paris, and then Rome.”

Far from a run-of-the-mill shoplifter boosting stolen goods from the trunk of a car, her life on the lam was nearly upended in France. She was detained in Nice and extradited to Monte Carlo to answer for her most audacious heist. She was held for nine months, Payne said, while a flummoxed band of investigators tried to unravel her case. Payne had been searched repeatedly, but the officers came up empty handed. The gem, she said, was tucked into the hem of her girdle.

The youngest of six children born to David Payne and a mother, who was a seamstress, Payne attributes her deceptive skills to a solid public school education. “I could travel in Europe as good as I did,” she told me, “because of the knowledge I had of maps.

“I had geography. I had algebra,” she said, waxing poetically about her upbringing. “I had home economics and health classes.”

Home to Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Bill Withers and situated along Route 54 in Raleigh County, it is notable that her hometown boasts a population of just over 200. As of the 2000 U.S. Census, almost all were white and none had acquired a college degree. The median income is 20 percent below the national average.

Payne is oddly proud of Slab Fork and she credits the tiny hamlet with helping her get her start.

“To be quite honest, it was a community. It was not a slum,” Payne recalled. “When you came down the mountain, the first community you come in contact with is the white community. There were lawns and gardens.”

Back in the 1930s, Slab Fork typified most southern towns—white people lived in the first section coming off the mountain and “colored folk” lived in another quarter. Payne’s father was black and her mother was “full-blooded Sioux” she told me. Her high cheekbones and neatly trimmed shock of white hair tells the story of her lineage. I am disarmed by the blue ring around her brown irises, a sign of cholesterol deposits most common in the elderly.

“I had all the things every little girl had,” Payne says, speaking fondly of her playhouse and dolls. “I was not raised to believe anyone was better than me because of skin color or that there was anything that I could not have.”

She pilfered several pear-shaped diamonds and emeralds, Payne told me. Clearly, she knows her way around the gem industry, picking the best of the lot. Payne also knows how the everyday consumer is fooled with cut-rate, bargain basement sales.

Payne is formal in her descriptions, I assess. She has no use for contractions and she speaks as if delivering a State of Union address. I realize then that she isn’t putting on “airs,” but rather affording me a lesson. It’s a measured coolness I had not witnessed since my paternal grandfather passed away. I hold my next question and wait, knowing there is more story yet to unfold.

“Let her tell it,” I said to myself.

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SOURCE: The Daily Beast – Goldie Taylor