The Life of a Career Jewel Thief

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

Payne got most ideas for her thefts from ads and articles in fancy magazines, especially Town & Country. She flipped through the pages, spied a ring she liked and then traveled from her base in Bedford, Ohio, to the store which advertised it.

The Jewelers Security Alliance, an industry trade group, got on to Payne in the 1970s. Bulletins went out, warning jewelry stores about a slick, well-dressed black woman who was stealing diamond rings.

Where others might hit a store for several pieces of jewelry, Payne only took one or two expensive rings at a time. But what really made Doris Payne different was that she was so prolific and so good.

"She pretended and gave all kinds of stories out over the years, of illness, of this and that, of sweet talking people and making deals," said John Kennedy, president of the Jewelers Security Alliance. "She was just very clever at what she does."

In the early 1970s, Payne tried her skills overseas. First Paris. Then Monte Carlo, where she flew in 1974 and paid a visit to Cartier, coming away with a platinum diamond ring. When she got to the airport in Nice, custom agents stopped her.

During the investigation, Payne says she was kept in a "fifth-rate motel" by the Mediterranean. One day she asked the woman in charge for nail clippers and for a needle and thread to mend her dress. She used the clippers to pry the ring from its setting, sewed the diamond into her girdle and then tossed the setting into the sea, she says.

She wore her girdle day and night, even when it was wet from washing. Her room was searched every day, but the diamond remained hidden.

She wasn't always so lucky. She's been arrested more times than she can remember. One detective said her arrest report is more than 6 feet long - she's done time in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Colorado and Wisconsin. Still, the arrests are really "just the tip of the iceberg," said FBI supervisory special agent Paul G. Graupmann.

Once, when she was in federal custody in Texas, she even escaped from a hospital after faking a medical condition. She simply walked away, said Ron Eddins, an assistant U.S. attorney who was prosecuting Payne for trying to sell a ring when she fled.

The most time she ever served was in Colorado, where she did almost five years in prison for swiping a diamond ring from a Neiman Marcus store in 1998.

Payne had seen the $57,000 gem in Town & County. She wanted it. And she got it.

She quickly left Colorado, sold the ring and then went to Europe. The FBI searched her Ohio home while she was gone, and found $10,000 in cash - and several passports. Through the decades, she had used at least 22 aliases, among them Audrey Davis, Thelma White, Sonya Dowels, Marie Clements, Donna Gilbert.

The name may have changed, but the persona was always the same. She is charming, pleasant, refined, with a sweet Southern way about her.

"She is a woman and has a stately appearance about her," Eddins said. "So it's hard for people to believe she's a liar, cheater and a stealer."

During her time for the Denver theft, she was served several stints at a halfway house. Denver Police Detective Diane Stack told authorities that this elderly woman needed constant supervision. They found this hard to believe.

"Everyone sees her as this nice little old lady and she gets away with it," she complained.

And of course that's exactly what happened. She fled the state while on parole, and authorities say she soon was back at work, relieving jewelers of their jewelry.


She is 75 now. The white hair that she fluffed into a perfect coif is combed back in a dull way that is hardly a style. Her face is plain. No creamy makeup brightens her eyes and cheeks. No fancy dress. No designer purse.