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Thursday, May 11, 2023

Doris Payne: Celebrity Thief

     Slab Fork, West Virginia, a tiny unincorporated community in the southern part of the state, is the birthplace and childhood home of one infamous person. That person, born on October 10, 1930, is Doris Payne.

     In 1950 Doris and her family moved from West Virginia to Cleveland, Ohio where she began her notorious, lifelong career as a retail thief. Over the next 65 years Doris collected 20 aliases, 10 social security numbers, 9 dates of birth and dozens of shoplifting arrests in places such as Monaco, Paris, Monte Carlo and Tokyo. Most of her arrests, however, occurred in the United States.

     Payne's criminal career mainly featured her stealing expensive jewelry from high-end stores like Saks Fifth Avenue. Her modus operandi was simple: she would ask the store clerk to show her so many pieces of jewelry that the sales employee lost track of what was out of the showcase. Payne waited for the clerk to become distracted at which point she would scoop up an item, put it into her pocket and walk out of the store.

     In 2003, at the age of 73, Payne got caught stealing an expensive ring in Los Angeles. On September 23, 2005 police arrested her for shoplifting at a high-end store in Las Vegas.

     In January 2011, the elderly woman with the sticky fingers was caught stealing a diamond ring from a store in San Diego. That theft brought her a prison sentence of two years.

     In Costa Mesa, California, on January 2013, a Saks Fifth Avenue store detective caught Doris Payne removing the price tag from a $1,300 Burberry trench coat. (She probably planned to walk out of the store wearing the garment.) She pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two years behind bars. However, because of prison overcrowding in the state, a judge released Payne from custody after she had served only three months of her sentence.

     In 2013, Doris Payne was featured in a television documentary called "The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne." The film included interviews with Payne along with her daughter and son, her best friend and police officers from around the country. The documentary was marketed as a rags to riches story of how a poor, single, African-American mother from the segregated 1950s wound up as one of the world's most notorious jewel thieves. 

     In July 2015, the 85-year-old retail thief got caught stealing a $32,000 diamond-studded David Yurman engagement ring from a store in the South Park Mall in Charlotte, North Carolina. Following her arrest she made bail and fled the state.

     On October 26, 2015, a loss prevention officer at the Saks Fifth Avenue store in the upscale Buckhead neighborhood in Atlanta saw Doris Payne pocket a set of Christian Dior earrings and walk out of the store. When police officers ran a crime history check on the suspect, they realized they had nabbed the notorious thief and fugitive who was wanted on a warrant out of Charlotte, North Carolina.

     Shortly after the authorities booked Payne into the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, she paid her $2,500 bond and was released. Her attorney, Scott McCullers told reporters that Payne planned to plead not guilty to the shoplifting charge. The lawyer said that because of the 2013 TV documentary about his client's life of crime she was being persecuted.

     In December 2016, the police arrested Payne at a department store outside of Atlanta for stealing diamond necklaces worth $2,000. She made bail and was released on the condition she wear an ankle bracelet.

     On March 6, 2017, when Payne didn't show for a court proceeding, the judge issued a bench warrant for her arrest.

     The 86-year-old thief, on July 18, 2017, was caught stealing merchandise from a Walmart store in Chamblee, Georgia. She had $86.22 in un-purchased items tucked into her handbag. At the time of her apprehension Payne was wearing her ankle bracelet. Officers booked her into the Fulton County Jail.

     Payne, in September 2017, pleaded guilty to the Chamblee, Georgia Walmart theft. A month later the judge gave her credit for the 58 days she had spent in the Fulton County Jail. Before she walked out of the courtroom, the judge said, "Don't come back." (The judge had dismissed the charges regarding Payne's 2015 Saks Fifth Avenue theft.)

     In October 2019 the 89-year-old Payne appeared at a book festival in Decatur, Georgia to hawk her memoir, Diamond Doris: The True Story of the World's Most Notorious Jewel Thief.  Books in this genre appeal to readers who find professional thieves romantic figures. Other fans of this kind of book harbor deep resentment for the wealthy and fantasize about stealing rather than working for a living.

     In Diamond Doris Payne justified stealing jewelry and other merchandise this way: "[Stealing] beat being a teacher or a maid." This rationale reveals the mind of the sociopath. America has a long tradition of turning criminals like Willie Sutton, John Dillinger, Jesse James and Billy The Kid into criminal legends.  Doris Payne will not, however, go down in history as one of our great anti-heroes. In the end, she was just a serial shoplifter with a sob story.

     One can only guess how many times, in Doris Payne's life of crime a store detective, after catching her conceal un-purchased merchandise in her purse, let her go after retrieving the stolen items. Many retail security officers were probably reluctant to call the police on an elderly woman. One can also image how many times she walked out of the store undetected. When shoplifters get away with their crimes honest customers pick up the bill. Where is the glamor in that?