Arts & Culture

An 84-Year-Old Jewel Thief Strikes Again?

Doris Payne is more than a jewel thief. She’s a magician

Doris Payne is more than a jewel thief. She’s a magician. At 84 years old, the convicted cat burglar has six decades of criminal activity under her Burberry trench coat belt, having pilfered gems from high-end department and jewelry stores in the United States and abroad, armed with nothing but her nerve and her sticky fingers. Her estimated haul as of 2014: roughly $2 million. And now, according to the Charlotte Observer, there’s cause to believe she’s up to her old tricks.

Photo: Photo courtesy Treehouse Moving Images

A series of Doris Payne’s mug shots from a 1965 arrest.

On July 11, a woman matching Payne’s description walked into the David Yurman store in Charlotte, North Carolina’s SouthPark Mall, and walked out with a $33,000 diamond engagement ring. Well-dressed and charming, the woman pretended to shop, and when the clerk was distracted, brazenly exited the store, ring and all. The approach was pure Payne.

A coal miner’s daughter from West Virginia, Payne has built her reputation and rap sheet—said by the Washington Post to be some 20 pages long—on similar sleight of hand tactics. Playing the role of a well-to-do woman, typically looking for a diamond ring, she engages a store clerk, asks to see an assortment of items, and then banks on that clerk’s forgetting how many pieces he or she has removed from the case. By the time the piece is discovered missing, Payne is halfway to the airport, jewels in hand—or in girdle, as the New York Post reported happened in Monte Carlo in the 1970s, when she poached a 10-carat diamond worth nine figures from Cartier. For her latest caper—swiping a $22,500 ring from a Palm Desert, California, jewelry store in 2014, she was sentenced to four years in custody (two years in jail, two years on parole), but was released three months later due to prison overcrowding.

Courtesy of The Life and Times of Doris Payne (2013)

Payne hasn’t been arrested for the SouthPark incident, but the suspicion seems to rest fully on the charismatic octogenarian who has been compared to everyone from Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief to the crew of Oceans Eleven. And while representatives from David Yurman wouldn’t comment when I called yesterday, Payne has made no secret of her view of her infamous life and career. “I don’t have any regrets about stealing jewels,” she said in an interview for The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne, a 2013 documentary. “I have regrets about getting caught.”