International Jewel Thief, 80, Nabbed in San Diego

From Monte Carlo to California, career thief Doris Payne uses charm to steal.

January 13, 2011, 11:08 AM

Jan. 13, 2011 — -- Dressed to the nines, she waltzes into a high-end jewelry store in Monte Carlo -- or Paris or Las Vegas -- and smiles at the clerk. She asks to try on a ring or a watch -- wait, no not that one, the other one. How about this one?

After trying on and admiring several pieces, all the while bantering with the sales clerk, she decides that, no, she won't be buying anything today. She glides out as gracefully as she came in and the clerk goes back to work.

It will be hours before the clerk realizes one of the more expensive pieces – a ring that nice old lady had tried on -- is missing.

That's how Doris Payne, now 80, has been robbing jewelry stores blind for the better part of a century, her lawyer told ABC News today.

Payne has served time in six states for theft. Her most recent conviction was Wednesday. Payne was found guilty of walking out of a San Diego, Calif., Macy's with a diamond ring worth nearly $9,000 on Jan. 1, 2010.

According to her lawyer, Gretchen von Helms, Payne maintains that she has been wrongfully convicted – that it is a case of mistaken identity. Whatever the case, it's just the latest conviction in a career of thievery so notorious that, according to von Helms "if there's been a jewelry theft and an African-American woman did it, everyone would say, 'It must've been Doris Payne.'"

"She's had a history of other times where she's been accused righteously, and also accused falsely," said von Helms. "She has a certain notoriety."

While Payne denies the latest crime attributed to her, she admitted that she makes a life on the other side of the law, sometimes in exotic locales.

"When I cross-examined her, I said, 'This is what you do. You're an international jewel thief,' and she said, 'Yes,'" San Diego Deputy District Attorney John Pro said.

The daughter of a West Virginia coal miner, Payne has reportedly traveled the world plying her trade under some of more than 20 recorded aliases. ABC News has found she also has five social security numbers and nine different dates of birth on record. She sports an Interpol record that reaches back into the early 70s, von Helms said, and a U.S. rap sheet nearly 20 pages long.

Payne chuckled when she told the Associated Press in 2005, after an arrest in Nevada, that most of the near-legendary tales about her are true. She claimed to have stolen jewelry in Paris and Monte Carlo, including a successful heist from Cartier. But she also insisted in another newspaper article published the same year that she had retired.

'Theft By Beguilement': Less 'Ocean's 11', More 'Matchstick Men'

To von Helm's knowledge, Payne has never assaulted anyone during her thefts and does not use high-tech equipment to slip by security -- only her natural charm.

"They're not robberies," von Helms said. "What she does is theft by beguilement. She goes in, she's charming, she talks to folks and leaves. She just happens to have a diamond with her."

Payne's globetrotting capers have become so well-known that a movie about her is in the works, with Halle Berry attached to play Payne, according to several reports.

But even for Berry, playing up to Payne's larger-than-life personality might be a challenge.

"She's a character, 80-years-old, really beautiful. She has a very wonderful, charming personality," von Helms said. "She's completely unique."

ABC News' Melissa Lenderman contributed to this report.

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