ASPEN, Colo. – They rang in 2009 a day late in Aspen after a former resident unhappy that his hometown has become a resort playground for the wealthy vowed "mass death" and left four bombs around downtown before killing himself.
Aspen police say James Chester Blanning, a 72-year-old who skied competitively as a teen but had grown bitter about his hometown, walked into two downtown banks Wednesday afternoon and left gift-wrapped bombs made of gasoline and cell phone components.
Blanning also left notes demanding cash and saying "Aspen will pay a horrible price in blood" if his demands were not met. The typewritten notes said he was targeting four banks, police said, but only two — a Wells Fargo Bank and a nearby Vectra Bank — received the packages.
Later, police found two similar packages atop a black sled in a downtown alley. Blanning sent a copy of the notes to The Aspen Times newspaper.
"We believe the suspect abandoned his plan halfway through," said Assistant Aspen Police Chief Bill Linn.
Police found Blanning dead in his Jeep Cherokee a few hours later in a rural area east of Aspen. In his Jeep, they found a rifle and a handgun that Linn says Blanning used to kill himself.
Blanning's bombs caused the evacuation a 16-block area — nearly all of downtown Aspen. The evacuation lasted until 4 a.m., meaning the resort's hallmark mountaintop firework display and ritzy downtown parties were canceled.
Aspen restaurants and high-end stores tried to recapture the holiday spirit Thursday night with a rescheduled fireworks display. Revelers even started chanting a New Year's Eve-style countdown. But the party numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands.
"It hurt us bad," said Peter Calamari, an art gallery owner who said New Year's Eve is typically one of his top-selling evenings. "We had to close three galleries."
Bartenders and waiters, often young people who come to Aspen to work just during skiing season, grumbled they would not make up their lost holiday pay.
"Usually, it's a madhouse in here — everybody's making money, everybody's having fun" on New Year's Eve, said Chip Blake, manager of Bad Billy's bar in downtown Aspen. "I had 10 people last night out of work."
There were plenty of women wearing ankle-length fur coats with designer boots Thursday night but it was no match for a typical holiday here.
"We just stayed home and had a bottle of wine and some crackers," said Aspen resident Rick Peckham. Peckham returned downtown to see the rescheduled fireworks with some friends visiting for New Year's, but their second take at ringing in 2009 wasn't much fancier — just some homemade spaghetti before watching the fireworks.
Blanning's note said a fifth bomb was "hidden in a high-end watering hole." Linn said Aspen bars were searched early Thursday but that no additional bomb was discovered.
The bombs were detonated before dawn. One caused a fireball, but no one was hurt, Linn said.
Police had released Blanning's name and picture before finding his body. Authorities recognized him on a surveillance tape from one of the banks, wearing a ski cap and dark glasses.
Blanning was well-known to police. In 1994 he climbed atop the county courthouse, tied a noose around his neck and threatened suicide before police talked him down seven hours later. 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.
Blanning was arrested twice that year — one for property damage and another for assault. Court records show he was found guilty of the assault charge and sentenced to 60 days in jail, and got credit for time served.
In 1996, Blanning was convicted of fraud charges. He referenced his prison time in a handwritten note added to the envelope of the bomb letter he left at the newspaper.
"For the first two years I was in prison I woke up every (day) wishing I was dead. Now it comes to pass," Blanking wrote.
He gave no motive for the bombs, other than vague statement expressing hatred for President George W. Bush. The he added, "I was and am a good man." Linn said Blanning acted alone.
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 became an increasingly exclusive destination for the wealthy.
Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, who writes a weekly society column for The Aspen Times, knew Blanning as a boy and once employed him as a driver for her trucking company. Hayes recalls firing Blanning, a noted skier in high school, because he was unreliable.
"He was a very good skier, but he didn't really fit into the new Aspen," Hayes said Thursday.
Click here to read the contents of the note (WARNING: Explicit Content).