NEW YORK – He was a respected former NYPD detective and a decorated veteran of the Vietnam War who struggled in recent months with inoperable liver cancer.
But now Athelson Kelson is charged with bank robbery, identified by authorities as New York's so-called Bling Bandit, suspected of pulling off nine heists while wearing a flashy watch and ring.
Kelson, 59, was arraigned Friday in connection with a robbery at a Queens bank on July 10. He faces up to seven years in prison if convicted of the charge. He has been ordered to undergo a psychiatric evaluation before his next court appearance on Sept. 12.
His mother, Hilda Kelson, told Newsday in Saturday editions that her son had been struggling over the past few years with the disintegration of his marriage, memories from his experience in Vietnam and, most recently, his terminal cancer diagnosis.
"He's been having problems mentally for a long time," Kelson, of Randallstown, Md., told the newspaper. She said her son was diagnosed with cancer in June.
"I just hope... he can get the help that he needs," she said.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, who described the case as "sad and shocking," said Kelson — a former member of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force — was awarded a Purple Heart for his service during the Vietnam War. He confirmed that Kelson was terminally ill with cancer.
The police commissioner said Kelson had been implicated in four of the string of robberies in Queens and Long Island over the past 2 1/2 months by bank employees who picked him out of a police lineup.
Kelly said he didn't know why Kelson apparently turned to a life of crime. Asked if the ex-detective might have been trying to commit "suicide by cop," Kelly told reporters: "We can't exclude that."
Kelson surrendered Thursday to authorities and hasn't made any statements to police, Kelly said. A message left with Kelson's lawyer wasn't returned.
The bank robber was dubbed the Bling Bandit because of surveillance videotape showing him wearing a gold watch and a flashy ring. In some of the robberies, which began on June 12, the bandit displayed a black, semiautomatic handgun. The most recent one was Tuesday.
Police said the ring appeared to be the type given to detectives when they retire, with a replica of a detective's shield on it. Kelson retired in 2005 after 33 years with the NYPD.
In the Queens robbery on July 10, prosecutors said Kelson walked into the bank and handed a note to the teller that read, "Do not press the alarm, give me all the large bills in your drawer, I have a gun, I do not want to hurt anyone, no dye, no bait money, you have 10 seconds."
The teller gave him $600 and he fled the bank, Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown said.
Police said the Bling Bandit did little to disguise his identity. The robber wore only a baseball cap and sunglasses when he entered the banks and was easily identifiable in bank surveillance tapes.
Kelson has not been charged in the Long Island robberies but remains an "active suspect," Nassau County police said.
Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives' Endowment Association, said Kelson had been a member of the police union. Palladino said he spoke to him in June at the annual union picnic and described him as "very happy."
"I am shocked by these developments," Palladino said. "He served in some of the most sensitive and dangerous undercover assignments in the NYPD. It's very disheartening."