John Colson: Hit and Run
Aspen Times Weekly
Think of Aspen as a kind of econo-cultural steppe-land, a place where lions roam the wide open spaces and prey on the unsuspecting, sometimes slow-witted grazing beasts which, fat and content but nervous, gather in herds for safety.
Well, another lion has fallen on the distant savanna horizon, bedeviled by jackals of the law, driven mad by his own inner demons, and forced to the final extremity.
Jim Blanning, 72, shot himself to death early on New Year’s Day 2009, after planting bombs in local banks and distributing notes demanding money and warning all to keep quiet and let him go about his business.
Blanning, an Aspen native and a rebel in many ways, was either a thief and swindler who tried to abscond with mining claims by a kind of legal sleight of hand, or he was a brilliant student of mining law who used loopholes and legal quirks to make a legitimate living ” it all depends on whom you listen to.
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Simply put, according to those who knew him and his methods, he would research Pitkin County records to find mining claims belonging to lapsed or inactive corporations that dated back to Aspen’s silver boom of the late 1800s.
He then would create a dummy corporation of the same name and then lay claim to the holdings of the original corporation.
Sometimes, the story goes, he would sell the claims or use them as collateral for loans.
His admirers maintain he always would warn the buyers of the shaky legal foundation of the claims, and that he never ripped anyone off.
His detractors say he was nothing more than a hustler who stumbled on a way to make money in shady ways, feeding off the confusion and legal swamp left behind by the collapse of silver monetary policies and the ruin of Aspen’s fabled boom, who finally got caught.
Whatever he was, his shenanigans became too blatant for the legal beagles to ignore, and he went to prison for trying to lay claim to another man’s property.
I knew old Jim, not intimately but well enough that we would sit and chat over beers or coffee when we encountered each other occasionally ” conversations that mostly involved me listening to his rants about the evil county bureaucrats working their secret deals to enrich themselves while trying to keep honest brokers like himself from making a living, or some such.
And one year when he draped a rope around an abutment on top of the Pitkin County Courthouse and around his own neck, and then threatened to hurl himself into oblivion if his grievances were not given a hearing, he picked me to crawl up into the cupola atop the courthouse and hear his complaints.
We lost touch when he went to prison, though I saw him on the streets one day after he got out and we pledged to get back together for a long talk about his life as it was at the moment. Never happened, of course, though I wish it had.
Blanning was a unique product of a complicated environment. We didn’t agree about much when it came to his methods for making a living. But we did concur on certain political points and ideals, mostly having to do with the depredations of what Hunter S. Thompson liked to call “The Fatbacks,” the hustlers who were milking Aspen for all they could get with no thought for the continued viability of the community.
Blanning also was a rake, a man known for taking time on the clock of whatever job he was working at, to make out with whichever woman he was courting at the moment. Married seven times, according to reports, he was a lusty guy with no shortage of female devotees.
As I noted earlier, he certainly was unique, and his final act was as complicated as the environment that shaped him. Endangering lives is not my style, and I didn’t think it was his, but the madness seems to have been stronger than his conscience or his sense of proportion.
I guess he, like other lions of our little savanna here in the Rockies, ultimately concluded that he needed to go, and that he wanted to go out in style so he wouldn’t be forgotten.
He sure as hell did that.
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