Ex-NYPD officer charged with bank robbery

August 29, 2008 6:03:21 PM PDT
A highly respected former NYPD detective with inoperable liver cancer was charged with bank robbery Friday after authorities identified him as the so-called Bling Bandit suspected of pulling off nine heists while wearing a flashy watch and ring.Athelson Kelson, 59, was arraigned Friday afternoon in connection to a robbery at a Queens bank on July 10. He faces up to seven years in prison if convicted of the one charge. Judge Elisa Koenderman ordered Kelson be held and undergo a psychiatric evaluation. His next scheduled court appearance is Sept. 12.

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 terminally ill with cancer. Kelly said he was awarded a Purple Heart for his service during the Vietnam War.

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.

He had an "excellent reputation," Kelly said. "He was very well thought of in the department."

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 immediately 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."

In a separate case in March, a rookie police officer was charged with robbing banks in Manhattan and Pennsylvania.