Ramblings & ephemera

How a 75-year-old jewel thief did it

From MSNBC’s “75-year-old jewel thief looks back“:

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. …

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. …

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. …

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. …

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. …

“It’s not stealing because I’m only taking what they give me,” Payne said. …

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. …

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 suspected she had the ring and stopped her. The ring was never found.

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. …

Through the decades, she has used at least 22 aliases, among them Audrey Davis, Thelma White, Sonya Dowels, Marie Clements, Donna Gilbert.

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