ASPEN " Jim Blanning was wheeling and dealing in mining claims in Pitkin County almost to the day he died, according to a search of public records by The Aspen Times.
About three weeks before he terrorized Aspen with a bomb threat and shot himself to death, Blanning launched a plot to wrestle ownership of a mining claim away from Pitkin County. Blanning and a business associate on Dec. 8 conveyed their alleged ownership interest in four patented mining claims to a limited liability company that they controlled.
Blanning's primary goal was to sell the eight-acre Pride of the West mining claim near the ghost town of Independence and force the county government to file a lawsuit to prove it had clear title, according to Gaard Moses, a longtime friend and occasional business associate of Blanning. His strategy was to force the county to file what's known as a quiet title action against him rather than him spending the money to initiate the action, according to Moses.
"He tried to sell this to a lot of different people," Moses said. Prospective buyers were wary because of Blanning's history of fraudulent land deals. They felt the purchase was "tainted," although Moses said he was uncertain whether or not they told that to Blanning directly.
Blanning was an expert at searching convoluted ownership histories of mining claims around Aspen and other parts of Colorado. He spent hours poring over the ownership records dating back to the 1880s. Blanning found methods " some legitimate and some questionable " of acquiring partial or whole interests in mining claims.
He was convinced that he had found "a deficit in title" to the Pride of the West and that a buyer could establish title " for the price of litigation with Pitkin County, Moses said.
Blanning apparently took the first step last month to establish a chain of title to the property. A special warranty deed was conveyed from Blanning, Gordon S. Thompson and the Pride and Silver LLC to Great Wonder LLC, according to Pitkin County Clerk and Recorder records. The ownership interests were conveyed to the Michigan, Silver Cup and Unicorn mining claims as well as the Pride of the West. The county claims to own the Unicorn and Pride of the West in whole. It claimed one-ninth interests in the Michigan and Silver Cup. The assessor's office indicates the owners of the other eight-ninths of those mining claims are unknown.
The relevance of Pride and Silver LLC is unclear. It is not a company in good standing with the state of Colorado.
Thompson is the registered agent for Great Wonder LLC, which has a business address of 1615 California St. in Denver, according to the Colorado Secretary of State's records. Blanning's office was at that same address. And he is listed on some of Great Wonder's annual reports. (In his suicide note, Blanning distances himself from Thompson and said he was just using the man's name on the limited liability company material.)
Pitkin County Attorney John Ely said the assessor's office alerted him last month that Blanning had conveyed a special warranty deed to property that the county claimed it owned. An assistant in the office "was looking at it when all hell broke loose," Ely said, referring to the New Year's Eve bomb threats.
Ely said he couldn't comment on the legitimacy of Blanning's claim to ownership of the Pride of the West because his office's investigation didn't get that far. However, the issue raised his interest, given past ownership fights between Blanning and the county.
Blanning claimed ownership in mining claims using a variety of methods. Sometimes he would contend the county didn't follow proper procedures for acquiring claims abandoned after the silver crash of 1893. The county would issue itself treasurer's deeds after the owners fled the area and quit paying taxes. Colorado had specific rules that had to be followed. Blanning and others have maintained that those procedures were ignored in some years.
In other cases Blanning would revive defunct companies or corporations that once owned title to claims and used that as the basis for his ownership.
"That was the Blanning trademark," Ely said.
Blanning was convicted of fraud in 1996 for a land scam involving property in Aspen and sentenced to 16 years in prison. He served six years in institutions and was on parole when he killed himself.
Tim Whitsitt, a former attorney for Pitkin County from 1988 until 1995, said Blanning "was always convinced" that he found title defects. What he often forgot was that he needed to establish his own clear title.
"He wanted to attack the county's title and never address his own title," Whitsitt said. In some cases, Whitsitt acknowledged, Blanning and others were correct about inconsistencies in process. The county's procedures on tax sales seemed particularly flawed in 1908, he said.
Moses said there is a misperception that every mining claim sale involving Blanning was fraudulent or questionable. Moses bought the Little Nell patented mining claim from Blanning in 1974, quieted the title and eventually earned approvals to build a house there. He sold the property in 2001. The current owner has the property on the market for about $8 million.
"That was a huge success story, and Blanning was nothing but success stories," Moses said. He completed several legitimate sales involving mining claims along Ute Avenue in Aspen and on the backside of Aspen Mountain, Moses said.
He believes from conversations with Blanning that Blanning hoped to sell "ownership" in the Pride of the West for about $30,000. Moses estimated that it would take around $100,000 to clear the title in a fight with Pitkin County.
It appears Blanning took the alleged defect in title to the Pride of the West to his grave. Ely said his office won't check further into the special warranty deeds conveyed by Blanning due to the events of New Year's Eve.
Blanning's fight for the Pride of the West wasn't the first time the mining claim's ownership was disputed. A treasurer's deed was issued to Pitkin County on Sept. 7, 1976. The county contended that it acquired the mining claim in a tax sale in 1894.
But Stanford Johnson claimed he acquired the Pride of the West in December 1960. A former county treasurer turned to the district attorney's office in 1976 for a legal ruling on ownership. An assistant D.A. advised her that the county's acquisition was "valid" and Johnson's "invalid."
In 1988 " as Aspen real estate prices were soaring " the wheeling and dealing of patented mining claims surged. Blanning was one of several people dealing in the emerging market. In some cases, the county contended that claims it owned were being traded.
It issued a notice in July 1988 listing 200 patented mining claims that it asserted it partially and wholly owned. The Pride of the West was among those mining claims. Whitsitt researched the county ownership of mining claims for that list as one of his first projects after joining the government staff. It was intended to warn third parties that they needed to be careful of mining claim purchases from people such as Blanning.
It was an opening salvo in a battle that lasted 20 years and nearly ended with a blast on New Year's Eve.