When Blanning had money, it usually was the result of a complicated real-estate transaction involving one or more mining claims.
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Pitkin County's backcountry was loaded with old claims— to acre parcels established during the silver boom of the early s—most of which were abandoned during a market crash two decades later. But where prospectors had found failure, Blanning saw dollar signs—he was one of the first to grasp how easily old mining claims could be flipped into lucrative real-estate opportunities.
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Blanning wasn't the only person to buy and sell claims, but hisdevotion to the trade was legendary. The potential was limitless, he'd insist, beaming with optimism at buyers or investors.
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There were untapped veins of silver! You could build cabins and subdivisions on those old parcels and have your own little slice of paradise! The only thing that rivaled Blanning's passion for mining was his appetite for women. By the mid-seventies, when Bruce married Blanning, he was 40, three times divorced, and an estranged father of two. Wife number one had taken the kids—a boy and a girl—and hit the road early. Wives two and three had come and gone so fast that no one remembers their names. Bruce, who wore a gold "4" medallion while married to Blanning, filed for divorce after eight months, partly over concerns that her husband's hound-dogging might be pathological.
These women would show up on vacation, and Jim's handsome and strong, a real mountain man. He'd tour them around town, take them up in the backcountry.
Women just loved it. He'd buy dinner for the gang one night and borrow for it the next, pleading poverty.
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According to consistent and oft-told legend, he initiated countless police chases around town, usually involving alcohol and a snowmobile. In , on the night of his 50th birthday, Blanning got busted for a DUI while tearing through Aspen in an old Jeep—on the sidewalk. Many old-time Aspenites recount these stunts with a sort of quaint fondness.
But Bill Blanning is less sanguine. You never knew what you were gonna get with Jim. When things were looking up, he was your best friend. He was gonna make millions and take you around the world. But he'd get some wild thing in his head. He could turn on you just like that and become a monster. And the next week the monster would be gone, and he'd be sorry and respectful. Not everyone got Blanning's respect, especially the police. From the sixties through the mid-eighties, Blanning's name landed on 73 incident reports with the APD—traffic violations, failure to appear, petty theft, assault with a deadly weapon.
That Blanning never spent more than a night or two in jail back then is a miracle, though Braudis chalks it up to his charm and intelligence. As Braudis would ultimately figure out, his crime back then—a racketeering conviction that put him in a federal prison from to —was the key to what he did on New Year's Eve About an hour after sundown, when Grand Junction's bomb squad arrived in Aspen, authorities found two more packages in the alley behind the Elks Lodge, sitting on a black plastic sled. The contents were unknown, so the three-man crew sent in a robot to assess their weight and determine whether they contained liquids.
Even now, bomb-squad member Matt Carson won't say exactly how the devices worked—he's worried about copycat bombers—but he emphasizes that the threat was real. That night, Carson and his partners opted to use a "remote opening tool," essentially a high-pressure water cannon that obliterates and extinguishes any bomb parts or flames in its path. By they were almost ready to make short work of the devices in the alley. Meanwhile, everyone in Aspen had accepted that the night wasofficially a bust. The big fireworks show was postponed. People with dinner reservations retreated to overcrowded establishments outside the danger zone.
Down-valley residents with up-valley plans stayed in Woody Creek and Carbondale and Basalt. Mexican and Salvadoran dishwashers hopped on the bus back to Glenwood Springs. A man at a bus stop panicked and passed out, causing a minor scene. Out at Aspen High School, volunteers set up a refugee camp for about 2, hotel and condo dwellers with nowhere to go.
Aspen mayor Mick Ireland prepared to ride his bike to the school to perform ambassadorial duties with the tourists, to assure them that everything would be back to normal soon. But just before he left, police hurried him off to an undisclosed location, citing a new threat. This fact emerged at around , when the managing editor at The Aspen Times, Rick Carroll, found a handwritten note by the paper's front door, on Main Street.
I was and am a good man. Carroll rushed the note, which had a Denver address written on it, over to the courthouse. When Braudis saw it, his eyes went straight to the signature at the bottom. He immediately recognized Jim Blanning's scrawl.
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He'd seen it many times, on incident reports and on letters that Blanning sent him from prison. And as far as he knew, Blanning had been living in Denver since he got out on parole in APD radioed the bomb squad to announce that they'd identified a suspect and that he had a history of arrests and disputes with Aspen officials. When the bomb squad neutralized the packages in the alley, the contents dispersed like shrapnel.
The detritus consisted of cell-phone parts, mousetraps, and bladders of gasoline items that, in Braudis's opinion, were pieces of a viable device. Flame meet vapors from five-gallon plastic bladder of gasoline. Dick declined to be interviewed for this article. Sistie Blanning took the kids to Colorado Springs, where her parents were living.
She and the boys traveled to Aspen regularly to learn how to ski.
They settled there permanently in Few Aspenites are left from those days, but former Aspen Times editor and longtime columnist Mary Eshbaugh Hayes, 80, remembers Sistie as "a bohemian, an artist. As the oldest of three boys, Jim was the ringleader. He pounded my brother and me when we were little.
We wereconstantly terrorized by him. According to Bill, if Jim wanted a toy, he'd take it. If he needed money, he'd pawn something, never mind that it usually wasn't his to sell. He'd say, Oh, I traded you for it—I can't remember what I traded, but now it's mine. In the mountains, Jim became fascinated with mines. He'd seen the old mining maps and photos in the Hotel Jerome, where the family lived for their first few months.
But the real thing blew his mind.
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There were tunnels and shafts under thousands of county acres a giant honeycomb playground where he could explore and, according to Bill, experiment with old tools and explosives left behind by prospectors after the Panic of After graduating from Aspen High in and then bashing gates with the Aspen Ski Club and doing a stint as a ski instructor, Blanning headed to the University of Colorado at Boulder. College being college, and Blanning being Blanning, he once floated a stick of dynamite down a small runoff channel that passed underneath a sorority house.
Not long after, during a school parade, Blanning and some friends flipped the master switch controlling the power. In '56, Blanning joined the Air Force, where, according to Bill, the regimented military life kept his wilder instincts in check. After serving three years, he returned to Aspen in and began odd-jobbing shuttling tourists into town, working at ranches, driving a delivery truck. In '61, he left town to help cut trails at a newColorado resort called Breckenridge.
There, he got to know Dieter Bibbig, a young German who'd recently moved to Aspen. In the basement of the courthouse, authorities started calling Blanning's friends, asking about his whereabouts and whether they thought he really intended to hurt anyone. Parker, a co-owner of the defunct mine, had spent plenty of time palling around with Blanning in its tunnels and shafts.
Back in , their good friend Stefan Albouy, a mining buff and claim developer, had committed suicide at Smuggler, and Parker was worried that Blanning might follow his friend's example. But Blanning wasn't there. The landlord at his Denver property said the Cherokee had a spare tire on the roof. Word went out over the radio. Blanning's Cherokee at the spot where police found his body. Leads came in and fizzled. At , someone reported having seen Blanning at the Steak Pit earlier in the day.
Another saw an elderly man shaking a police barricade near Wells Fargo. A man who'd been at Ace Hardware that afternoon said he'd seen a man buying black plastic sleds, just like the one Blanning had used to tow his packages. But it wasn't Blanning; it was a guy who runs the horse-drawn-carriage business on Ute Avenue. He'd shown up at the stables that morning to find that his horse-manure sled had been stolen. Police assume that Blanning swiped it to haul his bombs. Limelight Hotel.