Carroll: Holiday headlines aren’t always glamor and glitz
December 29, 2013
We'd just sat down for Christmas supper, a juicy ham prepared by my Jewish wife. Then the phone rang, and I took the call.
"Got a hot tip for you: Charlie Sheen's in jail for threatening his wife with a knife," the source said.
Merry Christmas, everybody.
The meal would have to wait, as would the family, including my mom, who was visiting for the holidays.
It was 2009, and Sheen's display of Christmas Day stupidity would lead to front-page news in the Aspen newspapers, as well as around the country.
It was a pathetically sad story — Sheen was accused of holding his then-wife, Brooke Mueller, at knifepoint in a West End home just blocks away from where I live.
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Whether it's Thanksgiving week, Christmas or New Year's, Aspen has seemed a magnet for unsettling news and unspeakable tragedies. While the Sheen-Mueller flap would be the stuff of tabloids, nearly a year earlier, on Dec. 31, 2008, Jim Blanning would hold the city hostage on one of the biggest business nights of the year for the tourism industry.
It was New Year's Eve, and sometime after 2 p.m. that day, Blanning, bitter over Aspen's metamorphosis into a glitzy resort town, planted four bombs around town — including two Aspen banks.
Authorities shut down bars, restaurants and stores. Hotels were evacuated. Around 7:45 that night, Blanning slipped a note under the front door at the old Aspen Times building that said, among other things, that "Aspen will play a horrible price in blood."
When I found the letter, at the time, nobody knew who the suspect was. At first we weren't sure what to do. Was this a copycat? Was it a joke? We made copies of the note and ultimately came to our better senses by calling the Pitkin County Sheriff's Office. When he saw the rambling tirade, which had been scribbled on notebook paper, it didn't take Sheriff Bob Braudis long to peg Blanning as the culprit.
The good news was that nobody was physically hurt, other than Blanning, who would die the next morning from a self-inflicted gunshot.
While the Blanning story is one of the most jarring Aspen events in the past 15 years, one of the saddest happened during Thanksgiving week in 2008, when a Denver family of four died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The family had won a stay at a home on the outskirts of Aspen — at a school fundraising auction, no less — and the mother, father, daughter and son were found dead the day after Thanksgiving. Just like that, Parker, age 39, Caroline, 42, Owen, 10, and Sophie, 8, were gone.
Litigation would ensue, as would a Pitkin County grand-jury indictment of government building inspectors. The criminal charges wouldn't stick because of statute-of-limitations issues, and public outcry would mount over whether the inspectors should have been charged in the first place.
Other holiday tragedies have included the death of Michael Kennedy, the 39-year-old son of Robert F. Kennedy, on New Year's Eve 1997. The younger Kennedy died as a result of a skiing accident on Aspen Mountain. And in the early morning hours of New Year's Day 2012, Joanie Kocab, who'd moved to Basalt recently, was killed after being struck by a public bus as she was walking on the shoulder of Highway 82.
There are too many other examples to mention here, but it's clear that substance abuse and mental health have played into many of them, while others were simply a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Another common thread among these holiday tragedies is that they sparked serious conversations about serious issues.
For Sheen, the spotlight was cast not only on domestic violence, but also on how the local justice system treats celebrities.
The Blanning story punctuated the fact that Pitkin County has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation.
The Lofgren deaths led to carbon monoxide legislation in Colorado, Oregon, Maine and Washington.
Kennedy's death once again shined the light on skier safety, while Kocab's death spurred a wrongful-death lawsuit from her mother against the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority. The case is pending in Pitkin County District Court.
I don't like the term "hard news" — probably because I'm not sure what it really means in a place like Aspen. And I'd hazard to guess that other communities around the country only wished they had the type of so-called hard news that regularly occurs in Aspen — the downtown noise issue, building heights, ski-pass prices. You know, Aspen problems.
Yet much of the truly hard news in Aspen occurs around the holidays, when many tourists flock to this Pitkin County bubble to get away from the "real" world in which they live. Underneath the fireworks, lively parties and fluffy powder, however, there's that other side of Aspen that's the most difficult to report.
Rick Carroll is editor of The Aspen Times. He takes comments, complaints, questions and news tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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