The Life of a Career Jewel Thief

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


After high school, Payne went to work at a nursing home, the last legitimate job she would ever have. By then, it was just Payne and her mother living together, her mother having left her abusive father. Payne was pregnant at 18 with a son, and would later have a daughter, too.

Doris wanted her mother to know that she had figured out a way to raise money, to take care of her. "I know how to cause the man in the jewelry store to forget," she confided.

"That's stealing," her mother warned.

"It's not stealing because I'm only taking what they give me," Payne said.

Her mother's reaction was so harsh, Payne never mentioned it again.

But "I began to cause it to happen," she said.

She knew she needed the right lingo, the right plan, the right dress. Clerks had to assume she had money. A cheap purse wouldn't do.

She started with bargain jewelry stores. But she found out quickly that cheap stores obeyed by the rules. They never pulled out more than one item at once.

So when she was around 23, she took a Greyhound bus to a Pittsburgh fine jewelry store and easily walked out with a square-cut diamond with a price tag of $22,000.

"Now I got to get rid of it. I don't have a clue. I'm scared to death," she said.

A song came to mind. "There's a pawn shop on the corner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania," she sings, remembering the lyrics with a smile.

She went to a pawn broker and told the man she wanted to sell the ring. He asked how much. She wasn't sure, so she divided the price by three and came up with $7,500.

No questions. No ID requested. She got the cash.

She was off and running.

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Soon, she was living two lives: the plain, single mother who liked to cook and go to jazz clubs, and the worldly woman with places to go, work to do, gentlemen to dine with.

Her success was remarkable. She just had to go into a jewelry store, all dressed up, and more times than not, things went her way.

At first, her longtime boyfriend, a tavern owner, gave her tips. Don't talk too much. Don't give too much away. Don't even give your name. Sometimes he called a store beforehand and told them he was an attorney and he had a client coming in to shop who was settling an estate.

But mostly, Payne was a one-woman gang, with her own patter. Maybe she'd come into some money and wanted to buy a few pieces of jewelry. Or maybe her jewelry had been stolen and she needed to replace it.

The story didn't matter; she took her leads from the sales clerks and confused them easily. She had them take rings out all over the store and tried many on, asking about the cut, clarity, the carat. Usually jewelry stores only show one expensive item at a time. But when a customer comes in and claims they have thousands of dollars to spend, rules are often relaxed.

"Do you have a preference of stones?" they asked.

"You go where he takes you. You just play it by ear. He's talking to you about quality and beauty," she said.

She usually hid the ring in her hand, or sometimes on her finger in plain sight, then strolled out of the store into a waiting cab (she didn't own a car). Then she went straight to the airport to get out of town. Almost as soon as she stole, she sold.

Once she went to a fine dress shop in Pittsburgh and asked to see a satin robe on the mannequin in the store window. Payne was wearing a ring she had just stolen and the sales lady commented on it.

Tears flowed from Payne's eyes and she told the woman she had to sell it, something about her divorce. The woman thought she could help and left to speak to the owner.

The owner paid her $3,500 cash.

From then on, she had no fear of being caught. As she explains it, it was as if her victims became her silent partners.

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