Doris Payne has spent more than two-thirds of her life stealing jewelry, and if she had it her way, she'd still be doing it at 86.
In 1952, a well-to-do woman named Doris Payne walked into a jewelry store in Pittsburgh. She carried with her a designer handbag and a disarming charm, which flustered the young sales clerk so much that he lost track of how many baubles she was slipping on and off of her hands.
After a few minutes, the young woman placed each piece back into the tray and thanked the young clerk. She told him she may be back, but she just hadn’t found what she was looking for. It would be several hours before the young clerk noticed that a $22,000 diamond ring was missing.
With the theft of a single ring, Doris Payne began a life of crime that would continue for the next 60 years, landing her in prison multiple times, taking her to several countries, and leave her still chasing the thrill of the heist at 85 years old.
Though the exact value of everything Payne has stolen in the past is unknown, as a few pieces were never located, the estimation is high. Between 1952 and the mid 70’s she had stolen over $100,000 worth of jewels.
In the mid-1970s, Payne visited Monte Carlo and pulled off her most famous heist. As she had been doing in the U.S. for quite some time, she entered the jewelry store in a designer outfit and charmed the clerk into letting her see a prized 10-carat ring. After she left, they noticed the $500,000 10-carat diamond was missing.
Payne was eventually arrested after fleeing to Nice, France, and extradited back to Monte Carlo. There, she was held for nine months while they investigated the theft, though she was eventually released as the diamond ring was nowhere to be found.
While she was finessing her way into hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of jewels in Monte Carlo, the Jewelers’ Security Alliance in the United States was putting together a report on her. She’d become so infamous for stealing – and then escaping incarceration – that there were warnings put out against her in jewelry stores around the country.
“It’s extraordinarily rare for a criminal to have that lengthy of a career,” said JSA president John J. Kennedy. “Usually they either stop because they have enough money and they don’t want the risk anymore, or they’re dead.”
Her ability to remain out of jail, or only incarcerated for a short period of time was also shocking. Since the 1980s she’s been arrested no less than five times, and all five times was released and back in jewelry stores within a year. Police credit her ability to escape prosecution to her use of over 20 aliases, ten different social security numbers, and nine different birth dates.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of her story, however, was how much Doris Payne shared it. While incarcerated (briefly) in 2005, for a felony larceny charge, Payne consented to an interview with the AP, in which she described her heists. It was never about the money, she told them, for her it was all in the thrill of the game.
The interview garnered Payne international fame, and suddenly people everywhere were enthralled by the elderly criminal and her baffling ability to slip through the authorities’ fingers.
In her interview, done when she was 75 years old, she claimed she was done stealing, and that 75 was a good time to “retire.” However, it seemed that the thrill of the “game” as she called it, was just too much to give up. Since the interview she has been arrested five more times – once while wearing an ankle monitor she was assigned during her previous crime.
For the time being, Doris Payne is in prison, arrested in July of 2017 for stealing from a Wal-Mart, though with her track record it’s unlikely she stays there long. A film about her life is in the works, which, if anything, will further skyrocket the unassuming thief to stardom.
As for her long life of crime, Doris Payne doesn’t seem to be bothered by it.
“I’ve had regrets,” she told the AP in 2005. “And I’ve had a good time.”