Man on 'Suicide Mission' in Aspen Bomb Scare Found Dead

A man who attempted to rob two banks in Aspen, Colo., on New Year's Eve with four homemade gasoline bombs in what he called a "suicide mission" was found dead early Thursday after sparking a manhunt that shut down the city's holiday celebrations.

The man, James Chester Blanning Jr., was found dead early Thursday just east of Aspen in rural Pitkin County, said Asst. Chief Bill Linn of the Aspen Police Department during a news conference held on New Year's Day. Blanning was found in his Jeep Cherokee and died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

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"At this point, we believe Blanning was acting alone, and this was an attempted bank robbery and extortion," Linn said.

Police cleared a 16-block area Wednesday afternoon after two banks reported receiving the threats and packages. Police also found clear plastic boxes containing holiday wrapped packages and pizza boxes on a black sled in a downtown alley.

Blanning delivered two of the packages to the Vectra Bank and nearby Wells Fargo Bank at about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday. Linn said the bombs contained identical notes demanding $60,000 in used $100 bills.

"Those packages contained notes threatening detonation of devices contained in those tubs, and 'mass death' if his demands were not met," Linn said. "He claimed the devices each contained what he called a 'big firecracker' made of 'unique chemicals and electronics.'"

Click here to read the contents of the note (WARNING: Explicit Content).

The notes said four banks were to be targeted, though Blanning appeared to "abandoned his plan halfway through completing it," Linn said.

"The notes also indicated the author had a problem with the Bush administration and wars in the Middle East, and he declared this to be a ‘suicide mission,’” Linn said later.

Bomb squad technicians said the packages contained 5-gallon plastic bladders of gasoline rigged with cell-phone actuators and mouse traps used as anti-tamper devices.

Crews were able to disable the four bombs by early Thursday, though the Wells Fargo device did create a small fireball as crews worked to destroy it, causing minor damage to the exterior of the bank, Linn said.

Police released surveillance tape from one bank showing 71-year-old Blanning and asked the public to help find him. Police Officer Stephanie Dasaro said the man was recognized quickly by police as a former Aspen resident, though he was living in Denver.

The evacuation lasted until about 4 a.m. Thursday. It was not clear how many people were evacuated, but the American Red Cross helped in the effort.

The events put a damper on festivities in the resort town, a popular New Year's Eve destination that typically draws tens of thousands of people. A fireworks show was pushed back from 8:30 p.m. until midnight and then canceled altogether.

Many bars, restaurants and nightclubs that had planned festivities to ring in the New Year fell in the evacuation zone and had to close. Linn estimated the cost to local businesses in the millions.

Aspen residents recalled Blanning as an eccentric who grew up fascinated by Aspen's past as a silver mining town. People who knew Blanning say he became disenchanted with his hometown as it turned into a holiday playground for the rich.

Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, who writes a weekly society column for The Aspen Times newspaper, knew Blanning as a boy in the 1940s and once employed him as a driver for her trucking company in the 1960s. Hayes recalls firing Blanning, a noted skier in high school, because he was unreliable.

"He was a very good skiier, but he didn't really fit into the new Aspen," Hayes said Thursday.

In 1994, according to newspaper accounts, Blanning climbed atop the Pitkin County Courthouse with a noose and threatened suicide. Blanning was talked off the courthouse after seven hours.

Blanning told reporters afterward that he was protesting the "elitists" of Aspen and was angry about a 1990s Colorado Supreme Court ruling about a mining claim.

The Aspen Times newspaper reported that Blanning left a typewritten note at the newspaper's offices Wednesday evening. The profanity-laced note, which appeared to match those Blanning left at banks, said "Aspen will pay a horrible price in blood" if his demands were not met.

On the outside of the envelope containing the note was Blanning's handwritten "last will and testament," which left three Denver properties to two men. He gave no motive, but wrote, "I was and am a good man."

The note also said a fifth bomb was "hidden in a high end watering hole." Linn said Aspen bars had been searched but that no additional bomb was discovered.'s Sara Bonisteel and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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