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Bank teller trades trust for $300,000

Ruth Kellish figured the bank was on to her.

AmSouth Bank officials last week asked Kellish, the trusted head teller at the Sunset Point Road branch, about missing money discovered during an audit. Kellish, 60, went home for the weekend and thought about what to do.

On Monday morning, police said, she left her husband a note revealing her secret. Hands shaking and tears in her eyes, she sat down with bank officials and police and admitted her betrayal.

For the past eight years, she told them, she had been stealing cash from the vault. She had started out taking little nibbles. She even paid back the vault when she could.

But the amount she took grew and grew and grew. By the end, she was taking thousands of dollars at a time, police said.

Police said Kellish estimated her purse at $250,000, though police say the amount eclipses $300,000. Kellish had been living beyond her means and used the money to pay bills, police said.

Police took her into custody on a first-degree felony grand theft charge. She posted $50,000 bail and was released from the Pinellas County Jail.

Police said the FBI is investigating. Kellish could not be reached for comment.

No customers lost money because of the thefts, said Susan Lang, a bank spokeswoman.

"A loss of this sort is absorbed by the bank and it does not involve customer funds in any way," she said. "It is a business loss that the bank has to take."

If prosecutors decide to charge Kellish with the single grand theft charge, she faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted. The minimum she could face would be 21 months in prison, unless a judge decides to depart from the sentencing guidelines, said Beverly Andringa, an executive assistant state attorney.

Andringa said prosecutors have not received information about the case, so she didn't know what charges her office might file against Kellish.

Lang wouldn't say how long Kellish had worked at the bank, though she said it was longer than the eight years over which the thefts occurred.

Clearwater police Detective Ramon Cosme, who arrested Kellish, said her method was sly.

"She never walked out of the bank with the money," he said.

As the head teller, she had access to the vault, money dispenser and the automated teller machine _ places from which she took the cash.

Because tellers cannot make transactions on their accounts, Kellish asked other tellers to deposit the money in the account she shared with her husband, Cosme said.

Kellish had not told co-workers of her financial troubles, so the tellers assumed the deposits were legitimate. She dodged suspicion by going to a variety of tellers.

To cover up, she falsified documents to make it appear the money was never there, Cosme said.

"On paper, everything looked like it was balanced out and great, but in actuality the money was missing," Cosme said. "Let's face it. She's a smart lady and she knew how to do it."

Asked how a bank could be ripped off of $300,000 over an eight-year period without anyone finding out, Lang said: "I think it all falls back to the trust factor. You have to delegate responsibility."

The bank plans to review its oversight.

She said the company has "a strong set of auditing policies" that have been stepped up recently for reasons unrelated to this case.

Lang would not say how co-workers were handling the news, but said the company's branches are like family.

Said Cosme: "They (employees) were pretty amazed and pretty shocked."

Kellish told investigators she began taking money because bills were stacking up. Her husband had been laid off. Credit cards were maxed out.

Kellish, who had heart and blood-pressure medications with her Monday, also had doctor bills. The mortgage on her home, which she and her husband have lived in about 16 years, was large.

According to public records, the 3,400-square-foot home was built in 1986. It has a pool, patio, fireplace and a fair-market value of $306,900, according to property records.

The home has a cobblestone facade and neatly manicured lawn. It sits on a cul-de-sac on Geiger Court, which is in a posh Landmark Palms neighborhood in north Clearwater. Neighbors said the couple kept to themselves.

The thefts came to light last week when a bank auditor discovered money missing from an ATM, Cosme said, and bank officials confronted Kellish about it. She told police she decided over the weekend to fess up Monday morning.

Police said her husband, Robert W. Kellish, 60, did not know that his wife had been stealing.

"She handled all the finances at home and she completely misled him about how much money they had," Cosme said. "He had no clue. She left him a note at home saying she was turning herself in because she had been stealing from the bank."

After she admitted the thefts, bank officials summoned police and the FBI. She signed her resignation.

"She was crying and shaking," Cosme said. "You could tell she felt really bad about it, almost like a burden she had been holding back and the flood gates came open. It just kept compounding over the years. Eventually, it snowballed and got way over her head."

In October, a former senior vice president at First Union Bank in Seminole was charged with stealing almost $500,000 from eight elderly clients. That case is awaiting trial.

In January 2002, a head teller at a SunTrust Bank in St. Petersburg was charged with stealing nearly $550,000. That charge was dropped, apparently after the money was paid back.

Cosme said Kellish told police she has no money to reimburse the bank.

"She said she had nothing left to show for it," Cosme said.

_ Times staff writer Leon M. Tucker and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Chris Tisch can be reached at 445-4156 or tischsptimes.com.

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