When police arrested James Kelsey after a bank robbery in Fresno’s Chinatown in late March, he didn’t have a gun and it didn’t look like he had a plan – at least not for an escape.
Within minutes of the robbery, officers picked up Kelsey at a market about a block away from the Union Bank at Kern and F streets. He was clutching a cane, the type of clear plastic bag that a patient receives upon release from a hospital, and about $100 that he was handed by a teller.
He appeared frail – family members were shocked that he recently had lost more than 30 pounds because of diabetes and had to hold up a pair of much-too-large pants just purchased for him by his daughter.
Police did not even handcuff him as they waited for witnesses to show up to confirm he was the robber. Then, an officer gently held Kelsey’s arm and escorted him into a patrol car for the ride to headquarters.
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But family members say Kelsey did have a plan: to return to the place he felt most safe – prison. If that was his wish, it was granted Wednesday, when he was taken to Wasco State Prison after a brief appearance in Fresno County Superior Court, where he pleaded no contest to robbery and was remanded to custody.
The robbery arrest was the latest for Kelsey in a series spanning decades. His family says Kelsey, 51, suffers from schizophrenia and substance abuse and is emblematic of the nation’s failure to take care of its mentally ill.
“What a way to live,” his daughter, Anastasia Imbrogno, wrote in a Facebook post after the arrest was reported. “No life, missed out on so many family experiences and why? Because of cracks in our failed mental health system.”
Added Christine Kelsey, his former wife: “I feel sick … that we have literally begged the powers that be to stop turning him loose on his own. He needs to be under conservatorship and in a place where he can be taken care of.”
In interviews, Christine Kelsey describes a man who has spent his life battling demons through self-medication, first with marijuana and then with crack cocaine.
His inability to cope in society on prescribed drugs often turns into a vicious cycle: As his symptoms are brought under control, he cannot tolerate the way the drugs make him feel, so he stops taking them, only to return to behavior that puts him in trouble with his family and the law.
She says his need for care is so great that Kelsey, an insulin-dependent diabetic, cannot even inject himself because he is terrified of needles.
People think that people on drugs are addicts. They are not. They are mentally ill.
Christine Parker Kelsey
“It’s just a nightmare,” she says of his recent arrest. “We were expecting it. We were hoping they would send him back. This man is a poster child for what drugs can do to you.
“It’s a vicious circle. People think that people on drugs are addicts. They are not. They are mentally ill.”
Happy start to marriage
Christine Kelsey remembers the James Kelsey she married 31 years ago as a man who adored his children and in turn was loved by everyone who knew him.
The couple met after James Kelsey came to Fresno while working for the California Conservation Corps. They were married in 1985 and their daughter, Anastasia, was born a short time later, followed by a son, David.
Christine Kelsey says her husband began acting strangely about six months after their son was born. Soon, he was placed in short-term custody of county mental health workers as a danger to himself and others. She says he was diagnosed then with schizophrenia. She later found out that he had been so diagnosed years earlier, but there was no follow-up. James Kelsey treated himself with marijuana, she says.
“He smoked pot like other people smoked cigarettes. He was self-medicating.”
So began the family’s long struggle: James Kelsey would take medication, become functional, stop taking it and lose control. Christine Kelsey says that when he was not taking the prescriptions, he could not be around the children, and he often would be placed in an institution. Everyone suffered.
Christine Kelsey recalls one time when she was driving with her young daughter, who saw a homeless man on the side of the street pushing a cart. Her daughter broke down, fearing she was glimpsing her dad’s future. Imbrogno still worries. “When he gets old, who’s going to take care of him?” she asked during a recent interview.
“I’m 30 years old and don’t know how to take care of him. In our mental health system, there isn’t a place for for someone like him to go. Our greatest fear was that he would commit crimes again.”
Evolution of a bank robber
During the times when medication worked, James Kelsey was happy. He had a good job working for a trucking company. He was making good money. Then one day, he arrived at work to find a sign on the door. The firm was closed because of a bankruptcy. He was devastated. With time on his hands, he began hanging out with a rough crowd of friends. One of them shared crack cocaine with him.
“He became addicted almost immediately,” Christine Kelsey says.
The bank-robbery suspect was wearing a Valley Children’s Hospital T-shirt decorated with ducks. James has a shirt like that, his wife thought. Her husband was, in fact, the bandit.
She remembers one day pulling into her driveway as the children ran to her car. Their daddy was locked in the garage. She looked through a side window and saw him clutching a glass pipe as he smoked crack cocaine. She forced open the garage door and knocked the pipe from his hands. James Kelsey struggled with her and ran from the home after failing to get the car keys.
Then the bank robberies started.
Christine Kelsey worked as a dispatcher for the Fresno Police Department at the time. She remembers reading news stories in The Bee about a “Bus Stop Bandit.” One day at work, a co-worker read her a description of the bandit broadcast after a bank heist. The suspect was wearing a Valley Children’s Hospital T-shirt decorated with ducks. James has a shirt like that, she thought.
Her husband was the bandit.
James Kelsey robbed four banks in Fresno before he was captured at a drug house. He served 3 1/2 years in prison after being convicted of three of the robberies.
Set free, James Kelsey returned to Fresno, but was far from well. Not wanting to embarrass his family, he bought a bus ticket to San Diego, robbed a bank and waited for police. When they didn’t show, he walked down the street and hit another bank.
He was pointed out by a witness, Christine Kelsey says. Detectives called her and asked why.
“He wants to go back to prison.”
Kelsey did, for another four years. Out on the streets again in Fresno, Kelsey strolled into the Bank of America at Fashion Fair mall in April 2004 and handed the teller a note. He took the money, walked out, was tackled by a citizen and arrested by arriving police officers. By chance, his daughter was working at a store in the mall and often went into the bank to cash her check. Christine Kelsey still mulls what could have happened:
“What if she had gone into the bank and found out the robber was her dad?”
Christine Kelsey is now remarried. James Kelsey’s disease inspired her to begin a new career. She earned a master’s degree in social work with a thesis on “The Stigma of Mental Illness.”
She thinks that James Kelsey could have been saved a life of misery if his mental illness was caught early. She thinks he beat the drug addiction in prison, but the mental illness lingers.
“I think it’s hard for him because I’ve moved on,” she says, but she encourages their children to be part of his life.
Imbrogno spent time with her father before his most recent arrest. She says that during a recent incarceration, he was selected for a program for prisoners with mental health issues. She says it was highly beneficial. But it was also clear he was a different man.
“He had aged so much,” she says, adding that his cognitive ability had declined.
“We went shopping together. We went to a movie. It was like being with a teenager. People need to know these things exist. We thought our story was unique, but it’s not.”
When she glanced at a photo of James Kelsey after the recent arrest, she recognized the pants she had purchased for him.
“You don’t think of some guy who doesn’t have a belt to hold up his pants” as a criminal. “Unfortunately, he’s going to be better off where he’s going. It’s a sad story, but, it’s not the only one.”