Published January 03, 2009
ASPEN, Colo. – The Aspen that James Chester Blanning knew as a competitive skier, lumberjack and truck driver was nothing like the swank resort town it is today, and friends and family say it ate at him.
"Aspen became trendy," said Dieter Bibbig, a retired ski instructor who knew Blanning for 50 years. "I didn't let it bother me; I just accepted it. Not Jim."
Police say the disgruntled 72-year-old former resident left four gift-wrapped bombs in downtown Aspen on New Year's Eve, forcing thousands of well-heeled revelers to abandon plans to ring in 2009. He was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound a few hours later east of town.
Bank robbery was the apparent motive, but people who knew Blanning said he had long been disenchanted with his hometown as it changed from a former mining town to a playground for the rich. In 1994, he climbed atop the county courthouse, wrapped a noose around his neck and threatened suicide for hours in what he later said was a protest against the "elitists" of Aspen and for working people.
On Friday, working people were among those most furious about Blanning's attack. The bomb cleanup forced police to clear the mountain resort just as thousands of revelers were pouring into town for dinner, costing bartenders, waiters and other workers on what is usually the town's biggest night of the year.
"People were expecting to pay their rent with that money, and now they're wondering what to do," said sandwich and coffee server Sami Hibner, 21.
One private club had expected to charge guests more than $500 for New Year's Eve dinner and dancing; a nearby sushi restaurant had to close its doors and throw out a pricey shipment of fresh seafood flown in for the holiday.
Aspen, which already had been getting fewer tourist dollars and lower hotel occupancy rates because of the poor economy, tried to recapture the holiday spirit with a belated New Year's fireworks celebration on Thursday night. But revelers numbered in the hundreds, not the thousands.
"We were the ones hurt," said 22-year-old Milagritos Caballero Alen, a medical student in Lima, Peru, who paused her schooling to come to Aspen on a seasonal work visa.
Alen serves banqueters for tips at The Inn at Aspen, which wasn't shuttered by Blanning's threats. But she said most workers like her took a major hit when the town was evacuated. "It's awful. That was such a big night."
Blanning walked into two downtown banks Wednesday and left homemade bombs — made of 5 gallons of gasoline and cell phone components — with notes demanding $60,000. Police found two similar packages atop a black sled in a downtown alley.
Police have said James Blanning acted alone in his bank plot, and they considered the investigation complete by New Year's Day. Blanning's typewritten note mentioned a fifth bomb in an unnamed "high end watering hole," but Aspen bars have been searched with no additional packages found.
Blanning grew up in Aspen, once skied competitively and helped clear lumber to construct a ski run at nearby Breckenridge resort. He moved to Denver in 2003, by which time Aspen had been transformed into an internationally known ski destination where few working people could afford to live.
"It was a small town. Everybody knew everybody. And then little by little it changed," said Blanning's brother, 71-year-old Bill Blanning of Denver.
Blanning worked odd jobs all his life, including short stints as a ski patrolman, a lumberjack and a truck driver. He couldn't keep a job long, friends recalled, and a scheme to get rich by using old silver mining deeds to secure property rights landed him in prison on fraud charges in the late 1990s.
Bibbig, the retired ski instructor said he liked Blanning and once spent a summer with him clearing lumber. But he added, "He was a little deranged."
Blanning's handwritten "last will and testament," which left three Denver properties to two men, was written on the outside of an envelope of a typewritten note left at The Aspen Times Wednesday. He gave no motive, but wrote, "I was and am a good man."
Bill Blanning said Friday that there would be no public memorial for his brother. Instead, family members would cremate the 72-year-old and spread his ashes on the mountains he loved around Aspen.