Last Tuesday, an 86-year-old woman named Doris Payne was arrested for entering a jewelry store in the Atlanta area and stealing a $2,000 necklace. She was stopped by a security guard in the jewelry store, which soon led to her being taken into police custody. This would normally be the type of random and uneventful story that you’d probably read about on page 15 of your local newspaper or given a mention of no longer than a minute during the local evening news, as some random old lady being a shoplifter isn’t something that would merit much attention.
Except that Doris Payne is no random old lady, and this definitely wasn’t her first, second, or third time taking something that wasn’t hers. And Doris Payne has done this so often that she has gotten plenty of attention for it.
From The New York Times:
Born in West Virginia in October 1930, the child of a father who regularly abused her mother, Ms. Payne began her criminal career at an early age… As a little girl, she went to shop for a watch but was interrupted when another customer entered the store. The store’s owner, who she said did not want to be seen talking with a black person, asked her to leave. He did not notice that she still had the watch on. Though it is unclear…whether she stole that watch, Ms. Payne suggests that she first realized in that moment how easy theft could be…
…She began to steal only out of necessity, as her father’s abuse of her mother worsened.
Ms. Payne traveled to Pittsburgh by bus, where she stole a diamond and sold it for cash, giving her mother money to leave her father’s house, she said.
Soon after, Ms. Payne’s criminal career took off. An article by The Associated Press in 1976 suggested that her documented crime spree began when she was 16.
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.
When she was 23, she took a Greyhound bus to Pittsburgh and walked out of there with a square-cut diamond with a value of $22,000. Knowing that she couldn’t hold on to it for very long, Doris went to a nearby pawnshop and exchanged the ring for $7,500, a third of its value.
In 1974, she went to Monte Carlo and stole a platinum diamond ring from Cartier. Despite the suspicions of customs agents who prevented her from boarding her flight out of there, the ring was never located. And while she was staying at a motel room in the Mediterranean, Doris asked the woman running the motel for some nail clippers and a needle and thread for patching up her dress. She then used those items to pry the actual diamond, sewing it into her girdle, and then throwing the ring into the sea. Which made it even more impossible for investigating officers to locate the ring, as her girdle was never removed from her person, not even when bathing.
In 1998, Doris spotted a diamond ring worth $57,000 being sold at Neiman Marcus on display in an issue of Town & Country Magazine. And it wasn’t long before she went to that very same Neiman Marcus store and then walked out with that very same diamond ring in her possession before leaving on a jet plane to Europe.
And these are only just some of the robberies that the authorities know about.
Doris Payne’s career as a professional thief has been such a long and impressive one that she has been the subject of a documentary entitled The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne. (Which is available on Netflix, for those of you who need something to watch other than A Christmas Story and It’s A Wonderful Life this weekend). There has also been discussion about a feature film being made based on her life and criminal career, with Halle Berry playing Doris.
“I’m sure they don’t see me as a Black American woman who just walked in,” Doris once said of the White people in jewelry stores she would rob from. “I’m sure of that. I say that because I’ve had many, many people say to me: ‘Oh, you’re not Black. You don’t act Black.’”
“I don’t have any regrets about stealing jewelry. I regret getting caught.”
Doris Payne was released on bail this past Saturday, after posting $15,000 bond and assuring the judge overseeing her case that “[she’s] never been late for a court date” and that she would not make any attempts to leave town and disappear.
According to witnesses, Doris Payne was last seen walking out of the courthouse and heading home, before getting into the passenger seat of a luxury car being driven by someone who bears a very strong resemblance to Pete Postlethwaite.
And like that…she was gone.