A highly respected retired 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 scheduled to be arraigned later Friday in connection with a robbery at a Queens bank July 10. He faces up to seven years in prison if convicted of the robbery.
Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Kelson — a former member of the FBI's Joint Terrorism Task Force and recipient of a Purple Heart during the Vietnam War — was terminally ill with cancer.
The police commissioner said bank employees picked Kelson out of a police lineup in four of the robberies that have occurred in Queens and Long Island during the past 2 1/2 months.
Kelly said he didn't know why Kelson apparently turned to a life of crime. Asked if the ex-detective might have been provoking an officer to kill him, 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.
Gold watch and a flashy ring
The bank robber was dubbed the Bling Bandit because surveillance videotape showed him wearing a gold watch and a flashy ring. In some of the robberies, the bandit displayed a black, semiautomatic handgun. The robbery string began June 12, and the most recent heist 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 belonged to the police union. Palladino said he spoke to him in June at the annual union picnic and that Kelson seemed "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."