Gas line sabotage investigation hits brick wall, Aspen Police say

After months of looking into December 2020 attack that left hundreds of residents without heat for days, Aspen Police unable to find suspect

Aspen residents claim heaters outside of the Aspen Police Department to heat their homes during a gas outage on Monday, Dec. 28, 2020. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

After failing to identify a suspect, Aspen police have inactivated the investigation into a natural gas line attack last winter that left hundreds of city residents without heat for days, an official said this week.

The acknowledgment that the Aspen Police Department is stumped by the question of who sabotaged Black Hills Energy gas lines in three places in the Aspen area Dec. 26 comes after the FBI provided cell phone data from that night in hopes of identifying a suspect, said Sgt. Rick Magnuson, who heads the department’s detective division. But despite that and a months-long, focused investigation, detectives were unable to identify a significant lead or suspect, he said.

“We’ve come to the end of our investigative leads,” Magnuson said. “I’m unhappy we haven’t been able to solve it yet. We’re not giving up. But at this point, we don’t have any suspects.”

A saboteur or group of saboteurs who investigators believe knew what they were doing tampered with unsecured or barely secured natural gas line valves Dec. 26 at two locations in unincorporated Pitkin County and one in the Aspen area. The attackers wrote “Earth First!” on pipes in two of the three locations, though no one associated with the decentralized, radical environmental group has ever taken responsibility for the sabotage.

The saboteur turned the valves in a way that depressurized the entire natural gas delivery system for the city of Aspen only. Areas just outside the city, including the Castle Creek Valley where Aspen Valley Hospital is located, were not affected.

“This was a targeted attack on the city,” Magnuson said in January.

Seth Hulquist with Black Hills Energy turns gas on at a property on Main Street in Aspen on Tuesday, Dec. 29, 2020. Hulquist and his coworker traveled from Nebraska after volunteering to help with the outage in Aspen. The command center gave a list of 54 properties to Hulquist to relight. (Kelsey Brunner/The Aspen Times)

In order to re-pressurize the system, Black Hills Energy imported technicians from across the West and the country to come and first turn off, then turn back on each gas meter at every residence and business affected. That took about three days, which meant approximately 3,500 Aspen residents and businesses went without gas service — and for many, heat — as winter temperatures dipped into the single digits at night.

Black Hills Energy spent around $1.4 million fixing the sabotage, including importing workers and putting them up, as well as distributing space heaters to cold city residents. The company has posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of anyone associated with the attack.

Black Hills has “hardened” security around natural gas sites around Aspen, Magnuson said.

The FBI provided Aspen police detectives cell phone data from the night of Dec. 26 from each of the three sites that were sabotaged. The information included a long list of names and cell phone numbers, Magnuson said.

“We interviewed over a dozen people,” he said.

Operators at the Big Wrap sandwich shop in downtown Aspen closed the restaurant Monday, Dec. 28, 2020, because of the natural gas outage affecting the area.
Andrew Travers / The Aspen Times

Through the course of the interviews, detectives began to believe the cell phone data might not accurately reflect people’s location that night.

“In mountain terrain, it’s difficult to triangulate where people are,” Magnuson said. “The FBI backs us up on that. We’ve seen that in other cases up here.”

In other words, the interviews went nowhere and none of the those whose numbers came up in the FBI data rose to the level of a suspect in the attack, he said.

An email sent Thursday to a public affairs address at the FBI Denver field office seeking further comment was not answered.

“The FBI will keep monitoring (the sabotage case) with their own capabilities,” Magnuson said. “It will remain on the FBI’s radar. It’s a high priority case for us and for them.”


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