Suspected arson forces seniors from apartments |

Suspected arson forces seniors from apartments

Janet Urquhart
The body of a man is taken from the Aspen Country Inn as Colorado Bureau of Investigation agent Jerry Means, far left, discusses an apparent arson at the senior housing complex with local fire officials. Aspen Times photo/Paul Conrad.

A man who was scheduled to be evicted from his apartment at a local senior housing complex apparently hung himself early Monday after setting fires that forced residents to flee the complex in the middle of the night.Robert W. “Bill” Seawell was found dead in his apartment.”Basically, that’s the premise that we’re operating under right now as far as who started the fire,” said Aspen Police Sgt. Steve Smith.An autopsy is scheduled for today.Seawell, 69, was a resident at the complex and his unit was the most seriously damaged in the fire, Smith said.He was the subject of an eviction hearing in Pitkin County Court last week and several angry residents of the complex alleged he was dealing drugs from his apartment, though authorities would not comment on that allegation. One tenant complained that police had not responded to reports of his activities.According to a press release issued late Monday afternoon by the city of Aspen, Seawell was being evicted for unpaid rent and “significant damage” to his unit. The sheriff’s office was scheduled to meet with housing officials to follow through on the eviction yesterday at 1 p.m. It was one of two ordered evictions at the complex, said Maureen Dobson, director of the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority.Instead, all residents of the Aspen Country Inn were forced from their apartments by the fires and ensuing investigation.

No one else was hurt, though several different blazes were set in the two buildings that comprise the complex, according to Aspen Police Detective Jim Crowley.Local police and fire officials, along with an agent from the Colorado Bureau of Investigation accompanied by a dog trained in arson investigation, spent much of yesterday probing the scene.The fires started at multiple points and it appears an accelerant was used to help fuel the blazes, Crowley said. Residents of the building also reported smelling natural gas and authorities said they believe gas lines were tampered with.”That guy was planning on blowing all of us up,” said one tenant who asked not to be identified. “I’m very upset,” she said. “This could have all been prevented.”The tenant said she had complained to police about Seawell’s suspected illegal activities, but to her knowledge nothing was done.Tenants return homeMost of the 40 units at the Aspen Country Inn were unaffected by the fire and residents were let back into their apartments Monday afternoon.There was fire damage in a basement storage unit in the west building and Seawell’s apartment in the east building, as well as in a common lobby area and an office in the east building, authorities said. The blazes triggered the buildings’ sprinkler system where heat was detected. The fire department turned off gas to the buildings, Crowley said.

Fire alarms in the complex, located across Highway 82 from the Maroon Creek Club just downvalley from the Maroon Creek bridge, went off shortly after 3:30 a.m.”That alarm would wake the dead,” one resident said.The Aspen Country Inn, a former motel, consists of two buildings that were converted to rental housing for senior citizens in 1999. It is operated by the Aspen-Pitkin County Housing Authority and most of the residents there are seniors and retirees.They found themselves standing out in the cold in pajamas and bathrobes early Monday. About a half-hour after the alarms sounded, a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus arrived, giving them a heated place to sit.Residents were eventually escorted back into their units to get medications; most also took the opportunity to change into street clothes and jackets. They were brought to the former Aspen Youth Center in town shortly after 6 a.m., where the Red Cross provided them with food and coffee.Helen Roberts, one of the complex’s younger, working residents, said she spotted cushions ablaze on the sofas in the lobby and another small fire in the manager’s office as she exited the east building.”The sprinklers were activated and put the sofas out as I was passing,” she said.”I laid there until the firemen came. Then I got dressed,” said Bill Leonard, a three-year resident of the Aspen Country Inn. “The hall was heavy with smoke when I left.””We were all asleep and all of a sudden the fire alarm went off,” said Ruth McIntyre, who moved into the complex when it opened in September 1999. “We all opened our doors and were saying, ‘What should we do?'”I called 911 and apparently a lot of other people did, too,” she said. “The operator said, ‘Get out of the building.'”

Some residents didn’t emerge from their apartments until about 30 minutes had passed, according to Rebecca Harlowe, another of the complex’s younger residents.”A couple of people didn’t come out until the police or fire department knocked on the door,” she said.Harlowe was among the Aspen Country Inn residents who alluded to Seawell’s reputation.”They should do criminal background checks on the people who live there,” Harlowe said. “There’s some really unsavory characters that have been living there with seniors.”Sgt. Smith confirmed Seawell had a criminal record, but said he did not believe the man was the subject of a current criminal investigation.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 when he died about a year ago, at age 56, after suffering a stroke.The housing office has never conducted criminal background checks on the individuals who rent or buy units under its control, according to Cindy Christensen, housing operations manager.Such checks would be expensive and potentially expose the housing authority to liability if it failed to uncover something in an applicant’s criminal past, she said.”It’s not as easy as what people might think,” Christensen said. “It’s a hard call for us. If we do it for one person, we have to do it for everybody. It’s not like, ‘Oh, this person looks seedy, let’s do it for him.'”Janet Urquhart’s e-mail address is

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