Friday, February 20, 2009

BIC History Month: Uncommon Thief

"see i packed up my diamonds and clothes..."--Mariah Carey 

In the 1940's, West Virginia-born teenager Doris Payne went to pay a family bill at a small retail store in her new hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. She talked to the owner, who liked her, as she tried on jewelry. But when a white customer entered, Doris was ushered out hastily while still wearing a lovely watch. Even though she returned the watch to the storeowner, she realized that her getting out of the store was far more important to him than recalling whether or not she was still wearing the jewelry. This is what Oprah so aptly calls an "Aha" moment.
Stealing jewelry, or rather just 'walking away' became a game for Doris; she'd talk her way out of the store wearing the jewelry or ask to try so many things on that slipping one into her other palm as she said goodbye to the store clerk became second nature. After stealing her first major piece of jewelry, a $22,000 diamond ring, in 1953 at the age of 23, Doris realized she'd found a career that would afford her the opportunity of never having to return to her job working in a nursing home.

So she got her game tight, purchasing expensive bags and outfits that helped her play the part of a woman who could afford to purchase the jewelry she lifted. And even though bulletins began going out in 1970 about a well-dressed Black woman who was stealing diamonds, Doris' game got tighter as she took her game international, traveling throughout Europe and Asia collecting and selling jewels, using both her race and her stellar distraction skills to her shoplifting advantage. Infamous in the national and international crime-fighting community, Doris became one of the most well-known international jewel thieves of the 20th century, and certainly the only notable Black female jewel thief in American history. So notable, in fact, that veteran Hollywood writer and producer Eunetta T. Boone has penned a script about her--Who Is Doris Payne--and Halle Berry has signed on to play her in a film that begins production later this year.

The birth of the internet and technological advances pretty much ended Doris' heyday. She's easily recognized by department store security personnel and  law enforcement everywhere and was busted a couple years ago for stealing a diamond ring from Neiman Marcus, a sentence she's still serving.  Once she's finished with that sentence, she has to start serving the other sentences she's skipped out on over the years. Because typically when she was arrested, Doris managed to sweet-talk her way into the hearts of her captors, disarm them, and then...she just walked away.

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