Southern California -- this just in

« Previous Post | L.A. NOW Home | Next Post »

79-year-old jewelry thief, subject of Halle Berry movie, arrested at South Coast Plaza

January 26, 2010 |  7:04 am

In the decades she spent honing her craft, Doris Payne employed classic elegance, refined taste, Southern charm and a sleight of hand that could earn the envy of a talented magician.

Like the best illusionists, she had a knack for making things disappear.

Payne's life as an international jewel thief is the subject of an upcoming movie, "Who Is Doris Payne?" starring Halle Berry. But given the latest events in Orange County, the filmmakers may want to consider a new ending.

The 79-year-old was arrested on a rainy Friday afternoon 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, said Costa Mesa Police Lt. Mark Manley.

Now in custody without bail for a parole violation, Payne is expected to make her first court appearance today. Though she has had high-end tastes, the allegation that she took a coat is a departure of sorts for Doris Marie Payne, who began life in 1930 in a small coal-mining town of Slab Fork, W. Va.

In a 2008 story in The Times, Payne told a reporter she stole her first diamond in her late 20s, hoping to raise money to help her mother leave an abusive husband. From there, she never looked back.

Payne said she had no idea how many jewels she had stolen but that her career as a thief had spanned the globe from New York and Las Vegas to London, Paris, Monte Carlo and Tokyo.

The formula was simple, she said. Pick a fine store and look like she belonged there. Tell a great story. And, make sure she had pockets, deep pockets, with whatever she wore.

"A clerk would present her with at least five pieces of jewelry, usually emeralds and diamonds. When she decided which to take, she would place it on her finger, making sure the clerk saw it there," wrote Times staff writer DeeDee Correll. "Then she would begin her distractions, discussing other rings on the counter, then asking the clerk to bring more jewelry. Meanwhile, she would slip the ring from one hand to the other. 'I'm going to make sure he sees this hand I had it on is naked.' "

Eventually, improvements in security, helped by technology, caught up with Payne.

In 1999, she was convicted and sentenced to 12 years in prison after stealing a 5-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, giving them her occupation as "jewel thief."

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 prison sentence in Colorado and returned to California, where she was released on parole until her arrest.

-- Andrew Blankstein 

Photo: Doris Payne is shown during her incarceration in the Denver Women's Correctional Facility. She is now being held at the Orange County Jail. Credit: Nathan W. Armes / For The Times

More breaking news in L.A. Now:

'Magic mushroom' growing operation found in Lake Los Angeles home; 2 arrested

Storm could bring more snow and closures to mountains

Former owners of medical center to pay $10-million settlement in alleged Medicare fraud scheme

Should California send prisoners to Mexico? Schwarzenegger floats idea. Do you agree?