Eve of destruction: Aspen dodges a New Year’s bullet
ASPEN ” Aspen won’t soon forget New Year’s Eve 2008. On a day usually reserved for skiing, champagne celebrations and big spending, law enforcement essentially locked down 16 blocks of Aspen’s commercial core, where four gasoline bombs threatened people and property on one of the busiest nights of the year.
Around 2:30 p.m., authorities received reports from two Aspen banks of suspicious Christmas-wrapped packages with threatening notes attached. Beginning with “You had better be a very cool individual and not start a panic or many in Aspen will pay a horrible price in blood,” the notes then directed bank employees to “put $60,000 in used $100s” in boxes for pickup by an unidentified “someone.”
Gradually over the course of the afternoon, shoppers, revelers, hotel guests and local workers in the downtown core were forced by police officers to evacuate. Some, including members of The Aspen Times’ staff, retired to bars and restaurants outside the security perimeter to eat, drink or wait to return to work. Those without a place to go were directed by authorities to the city-owned Rio Grande meeting room and later to the Aspen schools campus.
Meanwhile, police tape and patrol cruisers with flashing lights appeared all around the core. Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses were parked across key intersections to block incoming traffic and officers were called from neighboring police and fire departments, the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and a special bomb squad from Grand Junction. Several explosions were heard over the course of the night as bomb technicians broke apart the devices.
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The New Year’s fireworks extravaganza over Aspen Mountain was canceled. Restaurants and bars shut down for the evening, and employees were sent home on what should have been the most profitable night of the year. The balloons, streamers, banners and white tablecloths were left untouched, and Aspen resembled a kind of empty, well-lit ghost town.
“It’s devastating,” said one restaurant manager who watched thousands of dollars in New Year’s revenue disappear.
The evacuation order was finally lifted at 5 a.m. on Jan. 1, but a “fifth fire cracker hidden in a high-end watering hole” was never found.
The bizarre plot was apparently hatched by James Chester Blanning, 72, an Aspen native who had come to deeply resent the town where he grew up. The ominous notes that Blanning allegedly delivered to the banks said his plot was “as much a suicide mission as a bank robbery.” They were peppered with angry references to America’s war on terror and ended with “F— the whole world, already.”
Sometime around 7 p.m., Blanning is believed to have left a separate, handwritten letter at the front door of The Aspen Times, where staffers had chosen to violate the evacuation order and assemble the next day’s paper. That note, which employees found and immediately handed over to law enforcement, claimed “I was and am a good man” and “I do hate Rove/Bush with a passion.”
Continuing, the letter bequeathed to Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis and Aspen Mayor Mick Ireland two properties in Denver. “May Bob help to understand it all. May Mike [sic] Ireland rot in hell,” the letter said.
Shortly after 2 a.m. on Jan. 1, authorities discovered Blanning’s Jeep Cherokee parked east of Aspen near the North Star Preserve. They also found Blanning, killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
A four-page, handwritten letter was found in the car addressed to Braudis. In it, Blanning says he “came loaded for bear” … “Could have done some serious damage. Oh-well. Too tired. To the bone.” The letter continues in a rant about his work and those he despised ” among them Ireland, former 9th Judicial District Judge, the late J.E. DeVilbiss, and former District Attorney Chip McCrory ” and ends with an addendum to the last will and testament he left at The Aspen Times. It is clear he planned to commit suicide; the letter ends with, “They have me. Good by.”
Days later, Aspenites were still struggling to make sense of the strangest New Year’s Eve in memory, but were thankful that nobody was hurt or killed. The canceled fireworks show came off on New Year’s Day at 8:30 p.m., and many restaurants, bars and nightclubs held celebratory parties one day late.
The bombs never detonated, at least not the way they were intended to, but the perpetrator’s apparent mission to skewer Aspen in the pocketbook was a resounding success. Though impossible to quantify, the lost revenue to local businesses certainly amounted to millions. The cost to law enforcement agencies alone was roughly $150,000 to $200,000.
In the following pages, we recap the events of Dec. 31-Jan. 1 and the impact they had on our resort community. We also take a deeper look into who Jim Blanning was, and the circumstances that may have led to the tragic events of this New Year’s Eve.
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