Seniors fired up over arson
A large plywood sheet covered the dead arsonist’s door at the Aspen Country Inn last night.One building over, several fans were blowing out the still-present smell of smoke in the basement. After several fires and a natural gas leak – all caused early Sunday by a man facing eviction – the one thing that cannot be removed from the air at the senior housing complex is anger.Residents contacted Tuesday were incensed at the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority and Aspen police for ignoring their repeated complaints about Robert “Bill” Seawell.One resident, a grandmother of four who didn’t want to be identified, said she “knew he was selling drugs and stuff, but I never thought he’d ever do anything like this.” After setting the fires and tampering with gas lines, Seawell, 69, hanged himself. He was being evicted for failure to pay rent and for damage to his unit. No one was injured in the blaze.The woman said she spoke with a police officer about Seawell’s late-night activities.”Walter Chi is a policeman up at school and I grade papers for the fifth-grade kids. Walter was there and I told him, ‘Friday night is [Seawell’s] busiest night after 12 o’clock.’ I said, ‘Please get out here and get him.’ And he said, ‘OK, I’ll get an officer to come out and talk to you.’ Well he never did that,” she said. “I have been bugging the police for years to get out here and arrest him.”I blame the police and the Aspen housing association because if they would’ve kicked his buns out, this would not have happened. I’m very upset with both of ’em.”This could’ve been mass murder!”Chi and Aspen Police Chief Loren Ryerson did not return messages Tuesday night.The problems with problem tenants at the complex are not new. In 2003, an Aspen Country Inn resident with prior drug-related convictions was charged with several crimes related to drug possession and distribution. The charges were still pending against John “Satch” Satre when he died about a year ago, at age 56, after suffering a stroke. Seawell and Satre were close friends for 30 years, according to an Aspen Times article.Ralph Sheehan has been an Aspen Country Inn resident since the senior housing complex opened in 1999. He said his first neighbor wasn’t exactly an upstanding pillar of the community.Keith Porter had just been released from prison after 11 years. Porter, who was a sniper in Vietnam, shot and killed wealthy Aspenite Michael Hernstadt in 1984 in an ambush outside a Red Butte residence. They allegedly had done cocaine together.In 1999, when Porter was arrested for threatening another man with a knife, the Aspen Daily News cited articles from 1984 about Hernstadt’s murder. After shooting Hernstadt in the chest, Porter continued to shoot his victim in the head and body with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle until he ran out of ammo. After his prison term, he moved into the newly opened Aspen Country Inn.”I was rather alarmed that I was moving in next to him,” Sheehan said. “The questions that were in the paper [Tuesday] were asking about background checks. Well, criminy, what more of a background check would they know about Keith Porter – I mean the murder was committed right here in Aspen. Everybody knew who he was. You didn’t have to do a background check on him. They rented to him right off the bat, so the precedent is being set way back then.”So you take the story from there, and you wonder why this came to this [Sunday] – gee whiz.”The Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority held a meeting last night with tenants of the housing complex. Maureen Dobson, housing authority director, said the forum included a representative from the Aspen Counseling Center trained in crisis response. She stopped reporters from both local papers from attending. Dobson said the meeting was aimed at giving residents “a place to process their feelings and their reactions to trauma,” and that they needed to be free of any media presence to do so.Nevertheless, the feelings of residents are clear, said Sheehan.”The fact that [the arson] didn’t come off doesn’t change the mind-set of what he had going. That wheel was turning when all of these events came down at the final moments. That is catastrophic,” he said. “There’s a lot of upset people out here. You can see the look on people’s faces out here: It’s gaunt.”Sheehan also questioned how the housing authority had let Seawell’s nonpayment of rent progress as far as it did.”He owes the company close to $6,000 – well, how did it get to that? This guy was able to continue his lifestyle,” he said. “Figure what he had here: He had free rent, he used the taxi service like his own private limousine, he got Meals-on-Wheels delivered to his door. He didn’t want to leave here.”This should have been in check awhile ago and [should not have] been left to this outcome.”Sheehan said he never knew Seawell to be a drinker, however.”I never saw him anything less than what he looked like all the time,” he said. “He was kind of a dopey guy so whether he was high or whether he was normal, who would know?”Sheehan lived two doors down from Seawell and last spoke to him on Saturday. He gave no indication of the crime he was planning.”I knew Bill to talk to Bill, but I never sat down and had any lengthy conversations with him. I knew who he was, he knew who I am because we’ve all lived here for so many years. It’s like a big classroom: You may not go to the guy’s house after school, but you know who he is,” Sheehan said. “There was a very easy rapport between the two of us.”I went to the lobby on Saturday morning and he came out. I knew that he was being evicted because it had been posted on his door. I didn’t want to bother him with, ‘Where you going now, what’re you going to do?’ But I did ask him how he was. He just said, ‘Everything is fine.’ Very, very calm.”Sheehan said the Aspen Country Inn attracts seniors who want to live a calm lifestyle.”And for the most part, I will say this place is quiet. These walls are well built and I don’t really hear what goes on outside these rooms,” he said. “Unfortunately for Merith [Berens], who lived right next door to Bill, she had to put up with the night calls. There was fear over there, but she had mentioned it to many people. No one seemed to act on anything.”When seniors come to this place to live, because it is labeled as a senior housing project, [they think] this would be a rather tranquil place to live. And it’s been anything but that.”Chad Abraham’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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