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Retiring Cop Who Overcame Cancer Foils iPhone Theft

By DNAinfo Staff on November 27, 2011 2:24pm  | Updated on November 28, 2011 12:25am

Det. Nelson Dones is set to retire from the NYPD on Nov. 29, 2011 after 31 years on the force.
Det. Nelson Dones is set to retire from the NYPD on Nov. 29, 2011 after 31 years on the force.
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By Patrick Wall and Tom Liddy

DNAinfo Reporters

MANHATTAN — Not even advanced cancer could hold him back.

A tough-as-nails detective who overcame stage IV lymphoma helped derail an iPhone thief in the Times Square subway station just days before his retirement, police said yesterday.

"This is a fitting culmination of an outstanding career," said Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly.

Det. First Grade Nelson Dones, a 31-year veteran of the force, who is assigned to the anti-crime task force in the Manhattan Transit Unit, said that the arrest was a satisfying finish to a career during which he had to fight for his life.

"It was closing the door the way I would have loved to close the door on my career," said the 57-year-old father of three from Ossining. "I wanted to be proactive."

Cops who knew Dones said that he was a skilled detective with "X-ray vision" and a voice like Al Pacino who pumped up his colleagues by saying "bring it."

Dones, who joined the Transit Police in 1980 before it was consolidated with the NYPD, had been part of a team that was monitoring an officer posing as a straphanger Saturday evening.

The veteran detective and the other officers spotted the suspect, Fernando Francis, 26, of Brooklyn, approach the decoy from behind as she went from the N/Q/R platform to the Times Square Shuttle.

That's when Dones, who is set to retire Tuesday, saw Francis allegedly grab an iPhone from the detective's backpack and put it into the front pocket of his sweatshirt.

Just after 6 p.m., the officers moved in and took Francis, who has prior arrests for assault, criminal contempt and criminal possession of a weapon, into custody.

He was charged with grand larceny.

Dones, whose son Jonathan, 35, is a cop assigned to the Midtown North precinct, was diagnosed in April 2000 with advanced cancer of his lymph nodes that had spread to his bone marrow.

"It takes you from whatever your pattern is in life," he said. "Cancer takes all of your freedom away."

"You wake up and you hope it's a dream. It's not a dream."

He underwent a grueling year of chemotherapy, which ultimately failed. But then he was placed in an experimental treatment program in Texas and received a bone marrow transplant from his brother.

Dones responded to 9/11 sick, but his health started to take a turn for the better. Even though he had nearly enough years to retire with a full pension when he got sick, battling the dreaded disease pushed him to go back to the job he loved.

"Surviving cancer made me realized how precious life is," he said. "I wanted to take a second chance on a second life.

"I’ve always loved policing."

In 2005, after extensive rehabilitation, Dones returned to work full time as a Field Training Officer — a senior officer who act as a mentor for younger members of the force.

"Cancer is a life-changing event," he said. "I wanted to teach young people what I was taught.

"It was a tremendously fulfilling experience."

One of his colleagues, Officer Troche, a 15-year veteran who worked with Dones for two years in the transit bureau but knew him long before then, called Dones a "fun, outgoing guy" with a voice "just like Al Pacino" who was skilled at his job.

He said that the veteran detective, who is interested in the stock market and rents out his building in Williamsburg to cancer patients for free, even had his own catchphrase — "bring it." "He'll want to pump up the guys, and so he goes, 'Bring it,'" Troche said.

When Dones left for Texas to get treatment, his colleagues were worried.

"It was serious," said Troche.  "We thought he wouldn't make it."

Chris Rickford, a 10-year veteran who works in the transit division, said Dones had a knack for detecting con artists in the subway.  "He has the eyes," he said. "He has the X-ray vision."

And Lori Gaynor, a 17-year NYPD veteran, said that Dones made his bones during a rough time in the city's history.

"They're going out on solo patrols, while crime is going through the roof," he said.  "You had to be able to take care of yourself then."

Dones, who was honored in 2010 with the NYPD's Theodore Roosevelt Award for Continued Service After Overcoming Severe Medical Hardship, plans to open up a business and continue teaching a quality of life course to union workers when he hangs up his badge.

While he has to take a pill for his heart and suffers from neuropathy in his feet, all he wants to do is keep going.

"I’m still alive and I can make an impact on people," he said.