Jim Blanning always dreamed big
ASPEN ” Jim Blanning was a big dreamer right up to the time his life ended in a nightmare.
Blanning wheeled and dealed in mining claims in Aspen in the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s hoping to strike it rich in the town where he grew up. He saw property values soar as Aspen changed from a sleepy town after World War II to a playground for the rich and famous starting in the late 1980s. He wanted a piece of the action.
“He was always looking for the mother lode,” Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis said Thursday. “But he was always scraping for a grubstake.”
Braudis had been friends with Blanning since the late 1960s. He saw a lot of good in his old friend, but he was realistic about Blanning’s ambitions. “I think he’d rather hustle a dime than earn a thousand dollars,” Braudis said.
Gaard Moses, another friend of Blanning’s for almost 40 years, said people will jump on the bandwagon after the horrific events of New Year’s Eve to dismiss Blanning as a “land pirate.” But before a battle with Pitkin County government over land ownership and development rights escalated in the 1990s, Blanning was a different man, Moses said. He donated the land that became Ute Park along Ute Avenue to the city of Aspen; he sold mining claims for a few thousand dollars to his friends and other people of limited means.
But as his land transactions came under increasing scrutiny from county officials starting in the late 1980s, Blanning’s bitterness started to build. Blanning was accused of a variety of schemes. In some cases, his research unearthed mining claims that were abandoned after the silver crash of 1893. County officials claimed he doctored chains of title to assume ownership. Blanning countered that Pitkin County often was at fault for the way it acquired old mining claims; the county took title to many abandoned mining claims in the early 20th century for lack of tax payments. State law specifies a process, and Blanning claimed the county didn’t follow that process.
In other cases, Blanning would find property owners whose corporate status had expired. He would resurrect the corporation and claim title to the property.
Three incidents punctuated his ongoing fight with county officials. He threw a copy of the Colorado Revised Statutes through the window of the Pitkin County commissioners’ old meeting room at the courthouse. During summer 1994 he climbed out of a second-story window at the courthouse, tied a rope around a fixture and his waist and eluded law officers’ efforts to pull him in by shifting to different areas around the Lady Justice statue in a cat-and-mouse game. “I spent hours before I finally talked him down,” Braudis said.
Blanning threatened to hang himself, but Braudis doesn’t believe he was serious.
Blanning also harassed the county commissioners and some staff members in 1994 while they were relaxing in the Cantina bar and restaurant after an official meeting. He strapped on a dildo and taunted the assembled officials. Blanning was cited for indecent exposure.
That minor infraction came back to haunt him when he was convicted in 1996 for one of his alleged land scams.
Blanning learned through research that longtime Aspenite Dieter Bibbig allowed a corporation he created to expire by not registering it with the Colorado Secretary of State’s office. That defunct corporation owned Bibbig’s property on Park Avenue in Aspen.
Blanning was accused of resurrecting that same corporation. Bibbig learned later, when he moved to update the corporation’s status, that his property tax was paid. He discovered that Blanning, someone he knew since the early 1960s, essentially stole his property. Bibbig was forced to engage in a costly civil litigation battle to regain his property. Meanwhile, word of the fiasco spread and the district attorney’s office filed criminal charges. Blanning was convicted of a fraudulent deal and sentenced by Pitkin County District Judge J.E. DeVilbiss to 16 years in prison. Braudis said the late DeVilbiss told him he had no discretion in the sentence.
Moses said Blanning “overstepped the line” with his effort to grab Bibbig’s land, although Blanning didn’t view it as fraudulent.
“He was just three degrees left of common sense,” Moses said.
However, it was widely felt among observers that criminal prosecution for the incident was exceedingly harsh. Braudis said the sentence of 16 years made Blanning bitter ” he hated DeVilbiss.
To make matters worse for Blanning, the indecent exposure conviction meant he started his prison sentence with the tarnish of a conviction for a sex crime, so he was in the company of sexual offenders. Blanning wrote in his suicide note, “For the first two years I was in prison I woke up every (day) wishing I was dead.”
Blanning was moved to a lower security work camp in Delta or Rifle after a couple of years, according to Braudis. He later was transferred to a halfway house in Lakewood. After about six years behind bars, his sentenced was reduced for good behavior and Blanning was paroled. His parole would have ended in October 2009, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections.
Blanning remained in Denver after his release although he maintained ties to Aspen. Blanning had a small office on California Street just off the 16th Street Mall in Denver. It looked like the type of place a “n’er do well” private eye would maintain, Moses said. Blanning continued his research into mining claims from there and had a spectacular collection of various minerals in special assay cups from a bygone mining era, according to Braudis and Moses.
Blanning still dreamed big after his release from prison, his friends said. At the time of his death he was researching mining claim ownership for a big deal he envisioned in the hills above Idaho Springs, Moses said. He wanted to find investors who would acquire those mining claims for development of a resort, golf club community and residential development, according to Moses.
Braudis and another friend of Blanning, Gary Wright, said Blanning told them that he was working on a deal for a ski area in the Georgetown area.
The two schemes that Blanning outlined for his friends were apparently just one idea, interpreted slightly differently.
Braudis said Blanning’s sentence prohibited him from dabbling again in mining claims. Blanning ignored the command. Nevertheless, the conviction made it difficult for him to lure investors to new schemes, Moses said.
“Jim had been maneuvered into a position of extreme poverty,” Moses said. “He told me, ‘I’d love to have the money to go to a movie.'”
Moses said he believes Blanning was further demoralized last summer when he couldn’t find a buyer for a mining claim deal he eyed on a hillside overlooking the Independence area east of Aspen. He wanted someone to buy a claim called “Pride of the West” but found no takers.
“I think that broke his back,” Moses said. “I was worried.”
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