Every town endures its share of self-inflicted wounds. There was this one on the web news last week: Bomb Scare Cancels Aspen New Year’s Eve Celebration.
It seems a man pulling a sled had placed gift-wrapped boxes in the lobbies of two downtown banks on the afternoon of Dec. 31. The packages bore angry notes promising that “Aspen will pay a horrible price in blood.”
Rightfully alarmed, bank employees called police who subsequently disarmed what were indeed crude bombs containing plastic bladders filled with gasoline and cell-phone detonators.
The typewritten notes said that bombs were to be placed in four banks and one “high-end watering hole.” The bomber wanted $60,000 in used $100 dollar bills from each bank or else—“mass death.” Authorities evacuated 16 square blocks of downtown Aspen and undertook a building-to-building search. No more bombs were found, but the sled with two more packages aboard was discovered in an alley. Perhaps the bomber had abandoned his plan half way through?
A bank security camera got a clear look at the culprit, and authorities knew immediately who he was. Jim Blanning, 72, an Aspen local since the age of 4, a man given to theatrical protest, and a man it might be said who was driven mad by the place his hometown had become.
As it happened, I got a call the next day from a Colona neighbor who also grew up in Aspen and knew Jim Blanning well. Frank was both stunned and at least a little bit sympathetic to the mess his classmate had created. “It saddens me,” Frank said, “that Jim got so possessed. He was almost a genius, a kind of brilliant scammer. But he could never quite pull if off.”
The two had been on the ski team together in high school. (As he talked, Frank was looking at a team photograph from 1952.) His mother had moved Jim and his two younger brothers to the defunct mining town during the war. Her husband, a West Point-educated officer, was captured by the Japanese on the Bataan Peninsula and died three years later on a prison ship. Perhaps that’s why Mom wasn’t always there for the boys; she’d disappear for three and four days at a time drinking and partying. Frank remembered going over to the brothers’ house to play and finding them “eating Wheaties and that’s all, for three days straight.”
As a teen, Blanning learned to research mine claims at the county courthouse. He’d find unpatented claims and then, through a detailed understanding of the arcane 1872 Mining Law, claim ownership himself. He believed there were still millions of tons of silver ore in the ground around Aspen. But absent the capital to develop new diggings, he mined other, semi-legal possibilities.
These were especially effective with claims on Aspen Mountain. Blanning would insist on ownership of certain parcels and “blackmail” the ski corporation into buying them from him. In one infamous case, he claimed that a corner of the new Ruthie’s on-mountain restaurant infringed on one of his properties. Skicorp eventually settled with him for two lifetime ski passes and a brand new snowcat.
To some folks in the upper Roaring Fork Valley, Blanning was a bit of a Robin Hood. He sold mine claims to working-class friends who couldn’t otherwise have afforded land near Aspen. But he also sold property he didn’t own to people who felt swindled. (He even “jumped” some claims belonging to my neighbor Frank. “And then he had the audacity to ask if I wanted to invest! In my own mine!”)
In 1994, to protest county decisions going against his development ideas Blanning climbed out onto the roof of the Pitkin County courthouse with a rope and threatened to hang himself. The Sheriff talked him down seven hours later. Another time, Blanning harangued county officials gathered in an Aspen restaurant. He was stark naked, wearing nothing but a dildo.
Eventually, the scams caught up with him. He was convicted in 1996 of racketeering, larceny, and fraud, including forging money. Thanks in part to the earlier obscenity conviction, a judge in Meeker threw the book at him: 16 years. He got out in 2005 and had been living inconspicuously in Denver, though he sometimes had trouble making rent. His brother worried about him. His neighbors in the apartment building said he was a nice man.
The same afternoon he planted the bomb packages in the banks, Blanning sent a copy of his demands to the Aspen Times. The typed letter was filled with bitterness over the “elitist takeover” of Aspen. “Too many people,” it read, “and I do hate Rove/Bush with a passion… F--k the whole world already.”
But on the outside of the envelope, as if he knew what was coming, Blanning had hand-written a “last will and testament.” He wanted to leave some Denver property to two men, one of whom was the sheriff who talked him off the roof. (Bob Braudis is still sheriff of Pitkin County. He told the Aspen Times he doesn’t believe Jim Blanning really meant to hurt anybody.) Finally, he wrote: “I was and am a good man.”
They found him early New Year’s Day in his Jeep Wagoneer east of town dead of a single, self-inflicted gunshot.
My neighbor Frank deals with his estrangement from Aspen in healthier ways. But he understands. “It was a special place in the 40s and 50s. And of course all of that has been lost.” In the end, for Blanning, the disillusionment “added up in his mind and drove him over the edge.”