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Ex-cop held in 'Bling Bandit' heists

The Vietnam veteran and Purple Heart recipient has been having mental issues, says his mother.

August 30, 2008|Christina Hernandez and Matthew Chayes | Newsday

NEW YORK — None of his former colleagues in the New York City Police Department can quite believe that Athelston Kelson, the man picked out of a lineup as the "Bling Bandit," is the same hero ex-cop who was awarded the Purple Heart for Vietnam War service before serving 33 years as a detective.

But his mother, Hilda, said with his diagnosis of terminal liver cancer, his broken marriage and the effects of a year fighting in Vietnam, she saw disaster looming.

"You could see that something was coming," she said.

Hilda Kelson, 85, of Randallstown, Md., said her son "was never the same" after his Army service. "He's been having problems mentally for a long time," she said.

It could have been the cancer, she said, that put him over the edge. She said he was diagnosed in June with terminal liver cancer. And a few years ago, while going through a difficult separation, he mentioned suicide, she said.

Whatever pushed him from a life of law enforcement to the wrong side of the law, Kelson, 59, was ordered jailed Friday in Queens County Criminal Court, where the judge also ordered a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether he was fit for trial.

Kelson was arraigned in connection with the robbery of a Chase branch in St. Albans of $600 on July 10.

He is a suspect in half a dozen bank robberies in western Nassau County, said Det. Sgt. Anthony Repalone, a Nassau police spokesman.

The Bling Bandit earned his nickname because of the flashy jewelry he wore during heists -- including rings and a watch.

And it wasn't just any ring that Kelson wore during the robberies, officials said: It was the ring detectives customarily receive on retiring from the NYPD. That ring helped identify Kelson, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly said.

At least half a dozen men from the Detectives Endowment Assn. union stood sentry in support of Kelson in the arraignment courtroom.

"He's going through a tough time," said Det. Kenny Sparks, a union official and friend of Kelson who said "he hasn't been right" for a while. "It's hard on everybody."

Kelson's mother hopes some good comes from the situation. "Maybe he was reaching out for help," she said. "I just hope . . . he can get the help that he needs."


Daniel Edward Rosen contributed to this report.

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