The Life of a Career Jewel Thief

One 75-year-old woman's remarkable career - as an international jewel thief


When Doris Payne went to work, she stepped into her fancy dress, high heels and donned a wide-brimmed hat. Her creamy, mocha skin was made up just so, her handbag always designer. Sometimes a pair of plain gold earrings would do. Always, she looked immaculate, well-to-do.

It was a lonely job. She worked by herself and few people knew what she did.

New York. Colorado. Nevada. California. They all beckoned, and so did Greece and France, England and Switzerland as she plied her trade over five decades.

She is 75 now, and she remembers the things she has done with amusement. Yes, she says, that was me, and she throws back her head and laughs.

There was the February day, eight years ago, when she strolled into the Neiman Marcus store on the Las Vegas Strip and asked to see a pair of diamond earrings.

Hmm, she said. She'd think about it over lunch.

She returned and asked to see diamond rings. Employee Linda Sbrocco showed her several - this one ... no, this one ... how about that one? Soon Sbrocco was swapping jewelry in and out of cases at a dizzying pace. Payne slipped rings on and off, and had Sbrocco do the same.

Then Payne was gone. And so was a $36,000 marquis cut, 2.48-carat diamond ring.

This was how Doris Payne went about her work as an international jewel thief.

Never did she grab the jewels and run. That wasn't her way. Instead, she glided in, engaged the clerk in one of her stories, confused them and easily slipped away with a diamond ring, usually to a waiting taxi cab.

She is, says retired Denver Police Detective Gail Riddell, like a character from a movie - a female Cary Grant, smooth and confident.

"She is very good at what she does," said Riddell. "She has the style."

And she has been very, very successful. Every month or every other month - no one knows how many times over more than 50 years - she strolled into a jewelry store and strolled out with a ring worth thousands of dollars.

Occasionally, she was caught. Mostly, she was not.

___

She grew up in Slab Fork, W.Va., where her daddy worked in the coal mines and her mother sewed dresses and did alterations for extra money. Payne was the baby, the youngest of six who liked school and loved to show her illiterate father places on the world maps she made out of salt and flour, places she would someday visit.

When she was a teenager, the family moved to Cleveland. One day, her mother gave Payne a $5 bill - $2 to get her hair straightened, the rest to pay the family's bill at a clothing and jewelry store.

"My mom says if I get good grades this year, she's going to buy me a watch," Payne boasted to the store owner, Bill Benjamin.

She had always liked Mr. Benjamin. He was kind and friendly, and this time he showed her some watches. She tried a few on, but then a boisterous white man entered the store, and suddenly it seemed that Mr. Benjamin didn't want to be seen being nice to a black girl.

He rushed her off and she made it to the door before she realized she still had a small gold watch on her wrist. Mr. Benjamin had forgotten.

"Oh Mr. Benjamin," she shouted gleefully, holding up her wrist, "I forgot this watch."

Mr. Benjamin snatched the watch from her arm.

People, she had learned, could forget.

It became a teenage game. Payne would enter a jewelry store with her girlfriend and try on watches. "I simply tried to cause the man to forget how many they would show me. I always managed to be able to keep one on my arm," she said.

She didn't steal. Not yet. But she made it clear to the sales clerk that she could have.

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