Bomb scare still sears Aspen’s memory a year later
December 30, 2009
ASPEN – Jim Blanning held Aspen hostage last New Year’s Eve in a twisted plot to make a statement and be “remembered.” Ironically, in one important sense, he’s already forgotten.
The fruits of Blanning’s lifelong labor – meticulous research on ownership of mining claims around Aspen and other parts of Colorado – sit in a Denver storage unit with an uncertain future, according to his longtime friend, Gaard Moses of Basalt.
After Blanning took his own life with a bullet to his head, his landlord went through the proper legal channels to evict Blanning’s belongings from a California office and 16 streets in Denver. Boxes upon boxes of records had a date with a garbage truck when some business associates of Blanning’s from Denver intervened, Moses said. They loaded up the boxes and filled a storage unit, one of the men told Moses at a memorial for Blanning last winter.
Those records are potentially valuable to anyone interested in gambling on a big real estate score. Blanning was an expert in finding deficiencies in titles to mining claims. Buyers with the time and money to try to clear the ownership could potentially cash in with sales of prime mountain building sites.
Moses said only a handful of people around Aspen have the skills necessary to interpret Blanning’s records in the specialized world of mining claim ownership. He doesn’t include himself in that elite group, and nobody with the skills is apparently interested in acquiring their old friend’s records.
It would be the kind of disappointment that soured Blanning on life. He was always looking for a big score in land sales but ultimately was sent to prison for what authorities said was a real estate scam. Moses said the friends who gathered at Blanning’s main memorial last winter felt he could no longer deal with the legal and political mechanism that thwarted his land-use efforts, whose legality was open to interpretation.
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“I think there is a consensus about that – the politics of Pitkin County put him over the edge,” Moses said.
Blanning’s frustration boiled over on New Year’s Eve Day 2008 when the nearly destitute man planted bombs disguised as wrapped Christmas presents outside two Aspen banks and handed over notes demanding money.
Police believe he was in the process of delivering bombs to two other banks when his plan went haywire. Sirens wailed and police began a slow, difficult process of evacuating the entire downtown core in mid-afternoon. Blanning abandoned his two remaining bombs in a sled behind the Gap store and wandered around downtown watching the mayhem unfold.
Aspen suffered a substantial economic blow in what already promised to be a tough ski season plagued by the recession. Retail shops closed early and, more distressingly, restaurants couldn’t open for what would have been one of their busiest nights of the year. A coalition of restaurants considered filing a lawsuit against Blanning’s estate to recover the damages, but the effort never materialized.
“Quite frankly, we found Blanning had next to nothing,” said Matt Ferguson, an Aspen attorney who was working with the group.
While total damages were never calculated, it was likely in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.
It will forever remain a mystery why Blanning didn’t detonate the bombs as his threatening notes to the banks vowed he would if he didn’t receive money. Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn said he believes the timing of the police response disrupted Blanning. Either he panicked or “maybe he never really wanted to hurt anyone.”
A bomb squad determined that the bombs – bladders of gas with detonators from cell phone parts and mousetraps – were capable of exploding.
A suicide note left by Blanning later that night or early New Year’s Day said he came “loaded for bear” and knew he could have done “some serious damage” if he went ahead with his plan. More chillingly, killing seemed to be his intent.
“The main part of the killing was to make a statement and make sure I’m remembered, but it seems I’ve done that,” Blanning said.
Perhaps witnessing the economic destruction he wrought was enough.
Police Chief Richard Pryor said he hasn’t dwelled on what Blanning might have done or what his motives were.
“To be honest, I don’t get into that second guessing kind of thing,” he said.
Moses said immediately after the Blanning ordeal that he didn’t think his friend intended to harm anyone, an opinion he continues to hold after a year of reflection.
“He was not a terrorist,” Moses said. “I think he wanted to make a splash and that’s what he did.”
While Blanning’s mining claim work is already forgotten, his legacy shows up in other ways. Linn said the police department is better prepared to tackle big incidents today after experiencing the Blanning incident. Officials learned where they needed to improve in handling big, emergency events – mostly in the areas of internal and external communication. Overall, the department’s dissection of its handling of the bomb scare was favorable.
Linn said he has “definitely reconsidered one small part of it.” He recalls trying to get people cleared off the street early in the incident. He was standing near one of the gift-wrapped bombs, shooing away a family. He can’t help but think of what could have happened had Blanning taken the plot a step further.
Pryor and Linn said the police department is now prepared for anything. After the Blanning incident, nothing can be ruled out.
“The copycat idea does creep into one’s mind,” Pryor acknowledged.
But the chief said he expects this New Year’s Eve to simply be a busy night in Aspen enjoyed by lots of people this year.