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80-year-old jewel thief cased Neiman Marcus jewelry counter while awaiting trial, officials say

January 14, 2011 |  7:56 am


An 80-year-old woman who authorities said spent decades as a international jewel thief faces more than five years in state prison after she was convicted of stealing an $8,900 diamond ring from a San Diego mall.

And a surveillance tape of her examining a department store jewelry counter may have prevented her from being released on bail while she awaits sentencing.

Doris Payne was convicted Wednesday of grand theft and burglary by a San Diego County jury in connection with the Jan. 2 theft of the ring from a Macy's department store. She later told detectives she sold the ring for $1,800, officials said.

Defense attorney Gretchen Von Helms unsuccessfully argued for the release of her client on bond pending sentencing after Deputy Dist. Atty. John Pro presented evidence that while awaiting trial in the San Diego case, Payne was captured on surveillance video at a Scottsdale, Ariz., Neiman Marcus store examining the jewelry counter.

Von Helms argued at trial that Payne's arrest in connection with the San Diego theft was a case of mistaken identity and that the culprit was a copycat.

"It's a case of reasonable doubt given that another women who looked very similar to her [Payne] who was filmed in the Macy's two days after the fact," Von Helms said.

But Pro argued that the defendant's chosen career path -- as well as her own words on the subject -- spoke volumes.

"The defendant literally has spent her life doing nothing but stealing high-end jewelry," Pro said. "She said it herself. That's what she does, and that's what she did it in this case. It's a classic life of crime."

Payne, whose life was to be the subject of movie starring Halle Berry -- and who was being filmed by a documentary crew -- is scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 9. She faces more than five years in state prison.

Born in 1930 in a small coal-mining town of Slab Fork, W. Va., Payne stole her first diamond in her late 20s, hoping to raise money to help her mother leave an abusive husband, according to an interview with the Los Angeles Times' DeeDee Correll.

She said she had no idea how many jewels she had stolen but that her career as a thief had spanned five decades. She said she honed her craft from New York and Las Vegas to London, Paris, Monte Carlo and Tokyo.

The targets were always the finest stores, she said, then she would blend in, tell a great story and take advantage of deep pockets in the clothing she wore.

In time, improvements in security technology caught up with Payne.

In 1999, she was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison after stealing a five-carat diamond ring from a Neiman Marcus in Denver.

While on parole in Colorado in 2005, she visited other states, taking an $8,500 ring in Nevada and a $31,500 three-stone diamond ring with a platinum band from a Neiman Marcus in Palo Alto, The Times reported. When police interviewed her, Payne admitted stealing the ring, telling them her occupation was "jewel thief," officials said.

She was eventually sentenced to two to five years for pawning the stolen Palo Alto ring in Las Vegas, as well as stealing a ring in Nevada.

In the spring of 2008, Payne completed her sentence in Colorado and was returned to California, where she was released on parole.

A year ago, Payne was arrested on suspicion of grand theft after security guards at the Saks Fifth Avenue store at South Coast Plaza accused her of taking the tags off a Burberry trench coat valued at $1,300 and walking out without paying.

-- Andrew Blankstein

Photo: Doris Payne is shown during her incarceration in the Denver Women's Correctional Facility. Credit: Nathan W. Armes / For The Times