International jewel thief Doris Payne knows that a diamond is forever.

And soon, her story will be, too – immortalized in the pages of a pending book and in a movie about the escapades of the 75-year-old career criminal who has answered to more than 22 aliases.

The coal miner’s daughter from Slab Fork, W.Va., has used charm and guile to rip off jewelers from Milwaukee to Monte Carlo. But she is spending at least the next year (and up to four years) in a Nevada prison for stealing a diamond ring worth $8,500 from a Las Vegas store.

Almost as soon as she was arrested 11 months ago in Las Vegas, Payne was swarmed by dozens of movie producers looking to buy the rights to her life story. Vegas newspapers reported offers upwards of $250,000 for her signature.

But she won’t profit from the planned film about her life, says Jason Felts of J2 Pictures, the Los Angeles-based movie company that will produce the story. She will only get to choose which women’s shelter receives a cut of the proceeds.

Felts says he first heard Payne’s story last fall when business partner Justin Berfield, who plays Reese on the Fox sitcom “Malcolm in the Middle,” read an article about her. They were convinced the story was better than fiction.

Felts says Payne already had received five or six offers from production companies but was drawn to J2’s hip approach to a tale that Felts describes as “Catch Me If You Can” meets “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

“It’s not going to be this dated, narrated, boring account of this woman’s journey,” Felts said. “There definitely will be a coolness factor to this film and a strong female voice.”

Roles have not been cast, the script remains incomplete, and J2 is uncertain when the movie will be released. But for the last several months, Felts, Berfield and screenwriter Eunetta Boone have spent countless hours visiting Payne in jail, plodding through anecdotes, beginning with her childhood. Boone visited Monte Carlo, Paris, Zurich – all the cities Payne lists on her criminal resume.

The project is tentatively titled “Who Is Doris Payne?”

It’s a good question.

According to newspaper reports, Payne began her foray into the sophisticated world of jewel thievery in Slab Fork when she was just 13 years old.

The story goes that a storekeeper allowed her to try on wristwatches. When a paying customer walked in, he shooed the girl away, hastily removing the watches and returning them to the case.

But he missed one. And Payne walked away with it.

Since then, Payne has maintained a comfortable lifestyle supported by grand theft. She has been pursued by Scotland Yard and Interpol. She has been in prison more than 30 times from Paris to New York and from Denver to Milwaukee to Cincinnati and Louisville, Ky. – and has escaped several times.

Her arrest records list five Social Security numbers and nine birth dates. Among her favorite aliases: Audry Sawyer, Marie Vaden, Sonya Dowels, Marie Clements and Louise Davis.

Elizabeth Easterly, who is writing the book “Shine: The Jewel Thief Next Door,” says the challenge for any biographer tackling Payne’s story is determining whether the thief’s tales of more than 400 jewel heists worldwide are more cubic zirconia than carats of truth.

Easterly met Payne when the two shared a balcony in their Denver loft condominium complex last year. Payne told Easterly she was in Denver to be treated for a lung disease and that soon she would move to be with her son in Georgia.

Actually, she was on parole after stealing a $40,000 ring from a local jewelry store.

For about seven months, Easterly looked after her neighbor – checked in on her and invited her for dinner – and slowly, Payne started to open up.

One day Payne said, “Let me tell you about a very good friend of mine named Louise Davis.”

Payne dazzled Easterly with a story about a glamorous woman who turned heads, wore only the finest clothing, traveled the world, stayed in casino hotels and even once danced with Prince Rainier of Monaco.

She also spoke of a diamond ring worth $250,000 that Louise tried on in a Cartier store in Monte Carlo in 1974. She described her friend’s methodical way of confusing sales clerks – dizzying them with questions and requests to see certain pieces until they would forget which were still out of their cases and which had been safely put away.

When Easterly interrupted the story and asked if Payne’s friend stole the ring, Payne got upset.

“What kind of question is that?” she asked. “Of course she didn’t steal it. She only took what they allowed her to keep.”

(OPTIONAL TRIM FOLLOWS)

While Payne might have won over her victims with charm and sophistication and enchanted others with tales of a life lived on the lam, Special Agent Paul Graupmann of the FBI’s Cleveland office says that more than 20 years after his first encounter with the infamous jewelry thief, he still doesn’t buy what Payne is selling.

“She comes across as a very romantic figure,” said Graupmann, who took on the case in 1985 when Payne escaped from custody in Fort Worth, Texas, and tried to return to her home in Bedford, Ohio. “In reality, she’s just a consummate con artist, who will tell you exactly what you want to hear.

“And she keeps getting caught. So if you ask me, she’s not a very good jewel thief.”

RB END ATASSI

(Leila Atassi is a reporter for The PLain Dealer of Cleveland. She can be contcated at latassi(at)plaind.com.)

AP-NY-06-30-06 1549EDT


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