On the dark side of bright-eyed paradise in mountain towns
This story originally was published in the April 20, 2009, issue of Mountain Town News, the e-zine distributed to subscribers.
by Allen Best
Scarcely mentioned in the reports about Jim Blanning, who deposited four bombs of gasoline in Aspen’s downtown business district before killing himself on New Year’s Eve, is how closely the fundamental story line resembled strange and fearful machinations during recent years in two other Colorado mountain towns, Alma and Granby.
In all three cases, men—yes, all men, and of middle age, with deep roots in the places of their targets—wreaked death and mayhem, each in some way targeting a mayor.
Three random cases? Perhaps. And it’s undeniable that being a mayor in any small town has great visibility and hence perhaps greater risks. But the argument here is of a greater dissonance in mountain towns.
People who live in mountain towns tend to view their towns as exceptional places. In many ways they are. Winters are more challenging and prolonged, and summers more intensely wonderful. The disparities in wealth, particularly in Aspen, are sharp. There are expectations, always great expectations. The expectations can turn sour, even poisonous when they confront reality. Always, there is the background of those supernal peaks and velvety forests. Sometimes, the internal geography of the human soul just does not match up.
The anger in Alma
In the case at Alma—which is located south of Breckenridge and, at 10,578 feet, long enjoyed the thin distinction of being the highest incorporated town in the United States—a 50-year-old man shot and killed a former mayor, firebombed the town hall, then drove a front-end loader into a number of buildings, including the post office, fire department and water-treatment plant. That was in 1998. The man—who was put into a mental institution, where he remains—had objected to being forced to go onto the town’s water system.
The next rampage, in 2004, was in Granby, a town near the western gate to Rocky Mountain National Park. Sagebrush steppes, pine forests and then the serrated peaks of the Continental Divide layer the background. On the main street, where Marvin Heemeyer terrorized the citizenry for four hours, are the Trail Riders Motel and the Longbranch restaurant.
The town board’s approval of the batch plant was ostensibly the cause of his anger. For 18 months, Heemeyer secretly encased the operator’s compartment of a Komatsu bulldozer in a protective tomb of steel and concrete. Then, on a June day sparkling with spring promise, the hay meadows emerald green and the Colorado and Fraser rivers swollen with the runoff of snowmelt, he lurched out of his shop.
Traveling 2 mph, he methodically tore into 13 buildings, starting with the detested batch plant, then moving on to the town hall, occupants fleeing out the backdoors as the blades ripped into the front offices. Later, he headed to the house of the former mayor, Dick Thompson. Heemeyer’s rampage finally ended when his bulldozer dropped into the basement of a Gamble’s store. There, amid the rubble of small-town America’s emblematic merchandiser, he sent a bullet into his own brain.
Trouble over mining claims
Aspen’s attempted New Year’s bombing had also been ostensibly precipitated by a dispute about land.Blanning, who was 72, was very well known in Aspen and had been profiled by The Aspen Times in 1976. That, however, was before the trouble—the trouble over the mining claims.
Blanning had moved to Aspen during World War II (his father was killed in the war) with his mother and three brothers. They lived in the Hotel Jerome at first. In the downstairs bar he listened to miners looking backward to Aspen’s glory days as a mining town. Even then, skiers at other tables were looking forward to Aspen’s future celebrity as a world-known resort. Blanning had feet in both eras. He skied for the high school team before graduating in 1954.
He was handsome and popular. A lady’s man who once got fired from a delivery job because of too many mid-day dalliances with his truck parked in alleys, he was married seven times altogether, counting twice to the same woman.
“He was very smiley,” says Su Lum, an Aspen resident since the early 1960s. “I don’t know how happy he was.”
The mining claims started out as a cottage industry for Blanning. As a boy, he had learned about the mining claims that quilted Smuggler, Aspen and the other mountains surrounding the town. Even as a teenager he was doing meticulous research on ownership. “I don’t know anybody who knew as much about mining claims as Jim Blanning,” said Gaard Moses, a friend for almost 40 years. “He would educate lawyers on the 1872 mining law.”
Birthed in mineral wealth
Aspen, like so many other mountain towns, came on the coattails of Leadville. Silver was the bonanza, and between the late 1870s and 1893, when the federal government ended price supports for silver, the excitement was intense, the accumulated wealth fabulous. Mining claims were staked from Independence Pass to the Crystal River, in nearly every side valley and on nearly every mountain—including Aspen Mountain.
After the crash of 1893, a little mining continued, sheep were grazed, and farming continued. It didn’t amount to much much. Locals later took to calling it the “quiet years” Even after World War II, when the resort era began, all streets except for the highway through town remained dusty, the buildings almost uniformly drab and gray. As for the old mining claims, they were nearly worthless.
As Aspen prospered, the mining claims took on some worth again. This is the edge that Blanning discovered. He tracked down heirs to buy the mining parcels, which he then resold. They were honest dealings. Sometimes, he gave claims to friends. He could be generous. Here and there he made $1,000 or $2,000 on a claim. The claims on the ski mountain, the ones that locals call Ajax, were more valuable. For awhile, he lived in a house trailer on one claim. He got a snow cat from the ski company in exchange for another claim. The ski company couldn’t have a fenced-off a plot in the middle of one of its ski runs.
City officials put his knowledge about Aspen Mountain to use in 1983, a particularly wet year. The officials were concerned about the potential for mudslides into the town’s business district. They consulted Blanning.
“Jim has always been an eccentric fellow, but he wasn’t mad in those days,” Bill Stirling, then the mayor, told The Aspen Times in January.
Transition in Aspen
The 1980s were a decade of transition in Aspen. Growth in skier days stalled, and property values escalated. Once-worthless mine claims in the backcountry gained value. Former county officials say that Blanning turned shady.
Blanning had several tricks. Among those who followed his story was Mick Ireland, who in the 1980s was a hard-nosed reporter for The Aspen Times, later to become a lawyer, then a Pitkin County commissioner and now the Aspen mayor.
Ireland says the favorite deception by Blanning was to create a sham corporation, adopting the same name as was found on the old mining claims, and then claiming title. It would be like if you named yourself Prince Charles and hence intended to become the next king of England, explains Ireland.
Tim Whitsitt, the Pitkin County attorney from 1987 into the early 1990s, says another favored tactic was to pay the back taxes on mining claims—then declaring that because he was paying the taxes, it must mean they were his. Blanning also set up stakes on the claims. In town, Blanning reportedly tried some similarly brazen plays—and stepped on toes.
But his real problems began in the late 1980s when he asserted ownership of mining claims that had reverted to Pitkin County because of non-payment of taxes over the previous 90 years. There are scores of such claims on the backside of Aspen Mountain, but also at other places in the county: on Smuggler Mountain, near Ashcroft, and up the Crystal River.
Pitkin County intended to exchange these private inholdings—roughly 100 altogether—within the national forest for a tree farm in the community of El Jebel, located about 20 miles downvalley from Aspen. Pitkin County envisioned a community amenity for its middle and working classes. A party to the plan was Eagle County, in whose jurisdiction the tree farm was located. Blanning’s claims held up the exchange for years.
Pitkin County offered deals, but he refused. Blanning complained that the county was thwarting his development plans. Hearings were held in Congress. Finally, in the mid-1990s, the deal went through. By then, Blanning had made a number of people in Aspen angry—including county officials.
“I simply saw, as a county commissioner, that it wasn’t in the public interest to pay people for property we already owned,” says Ireland.
Nudity at La Cantina
There were theatrics during this period. One time Blanning threw a Colorado law book out the window of the county commissioners’ meeting room. Another time he climbed out onto the second-story roof of the courthouse, tied a rope around a fixture and his waist, and eluded law officers’ efforts to pull him in. Bob Braudis, the county sheriff and seemingly everybody’s friend, finally talked him down after several hours.
Most colorful of all, a nude Blanning confronted county officials at a local bar, the Cantina, late one night after a meeting of the commissioners. He wore only a penis-type fixture made of felt. “It looked like a party favor, something you would give as a joke,” saysIreland, who was among the officials confronted.
Blanning would live to regret that confrontation.
Later, Whitsitt, as county attorney, recommended that the district attorney prosecute Blanning about his deceptions. “I harangued the DA’s office to prosecute him.” At the trial, Whitsitt was a witness.
In 1997, Blanning was found guilty of illegal financial manipulations and sentenced to 16 years in prison. Even at the time, it seemed like a harsh sentence. The judge, J. E. DeVilbiss, who later became an Aspen city councilman, said laws gave him no discretion about the length of the sentence. Because of his nudity at the bar that night, prison officials put him in with sexual offenders.
“For the first two years I was in prison, I woke up every day wishing I was dead,” he wrote in his suicide note found on New Year’s Eve.
Good, and insane, too
After his release to a halfway house in metropolitan Denver in 2003, he continued his scheming, but deeply embittered and perhaps changed by antidepressants.
“Both professionally and personally, I have seen incredible mood swings from a pill, and it can cause suicidal and homicidal effects,” Braudis, who had been identified by Blanning as a friend, told The Aspen Times. Braudis was also a friend of the writer, Hunter S. Thompson, who committed suicide several years ago.
The newspaper say the old-timers who knew him saw him as disillusioned over the changes the town experienced and angry that he couldn’t cash in on the soaring real estate prices.
Still, those friends and acquaintances were shocked when they learned of Blanning’s final day. He had created four gasoline bombs, deposited two of them in banks and then two in an alley. Also left were notes demanding $60,000 in cash. None of the bombs went off on its own, but 16 blocks of downtown Aspen, including hotels and restaurants, were evacuated, and the usual New Year’s Eve merriment—and great financial haul—was halted.
“He intended to cause death and destruction, which is totally out of character,” Braudis said after reviewing the suicide notes. “It sounds like he was apologizing for mass murder that he intended here…”
“Could have done some serious damage,” Blanning said in the note accompanying his body, which was found in a nature preserve three miles east of Aspen. “Oh, well. Too tired. To the bone.”
He singled out Braudis as a friend, but also Ireland as an enemy.
“I saw the good in him, and I saw the insanity in him,” Braudis said.
Surprising discovery in Vail
The news in Aspen led to a surprising discovery in Vail, a predictable response in Aspen, and questions that might well linger in mountain towns across the West.
The surprise came when Craig Bettis, a sergeant in the Vail Police Department, stopped by his house before going to Aspen to assist on New Year’s Eve to assist. A monitor at Aspen’s Vectra Bank had caught the face of the man who deposited the bomb, and Bettis instantly knew he had seen that face before. Vail’s Westar Bank had been robbed on Dec. 25, 2005, and again on July 3, 2006. The faces caught in those robberies were the same.
“I had stared at them probably a thousand times,” said Bettis, referring to the images taken at the Vail bank during the July robbery. Seeing the face from Aspen, he had an “ah-hah moment.” Mr. Blanning had been supporting himself by robbing Vail’s banks.
There were other repercussions. Several eateries reported losing $30,000 or more on New Years’ Eve, one of the year’s busiest. In January, a coalition of restaurants in Aspen sued the estate of Blanning. “We feel it belongs to the restaurant workers who took a huge hit. It’s not just the restaurant owners – it’s the waiters, the waitresses, the bartenders, the guys in the kitchen,” Scott Brasington, the co-owner of a restaurant, told the Aspen Daily News.
Whether there is any money in the Blanning estate remains to be seen. He kept an office just off the 16th St. Mall in Denver, where his cache reportedly included mineral specimens. He had lived out his years in a humble apartment house in the Denver suburb of Lakewood.
Connecting the dots
But the question lingers about what the Blanning episode says about Aspen and whether the dots connect with the aforementioned rampages in Granby and Alma.
One theory is that mountain towns attract and retain – and perhaps encourage – a certain amount of people who just don’t like to color between the lines.
I am reminded of a woman I knew in Fraser and Winter Park. She was an ad salesman for the Winter Park Manifest, a little older than I, good looking, and smartly dressed. Then she announced she was leaving. I would not have been surprised had she informed us she was moving to Denver, because she needed more culture. But no—she and her boyfriend were moving to Alaska, because Winter Park and the Fraser Valley were getting just entirely too citified. That was in about 1980.
At the Colorado Association of Ski Towns meeting in March, I asked Vail Mayor Dick Cleveland if he worried about being targeted because he is mayor. He arrived in Vail in the 1970s as a cop and he still works in the district attorney’s office. “Doesn’t bother me,” he said. “My name and telephone number have always been in the phone book. Whatever happens, happens. It doesn’t bother me.”
A surprising response came from Devin Granbery. He had gone living from suburban Denver (a neighbor of mine, as it turned out) to Silverton, in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, where he was town manager for two years. A former mining town, he found sharp divisions between the old culture of miners and the new recreation culture over such things as whether ATVs should be allowed on town streets and renovation of historic architecture.
What he also noticed,he said, is the value of fraternity with town board members. People felt it important to know individuals on elected and appointed boards. That was how power was conferred, and how authority was acknowledged.
Social ecology of mountain towns
When Granbery told me about the social ecology of Silverton as it relates to political power, my eyes lit up, because a sociologist, Jim Kent of Basalt, had trotted out the same line of thinking to me. Mr. Kent had also spent time in Minturn in the 1970s.
If Kent’s theory is correct, it explains why Jim Blanning saw Bob Braudis, the sheriff, as a buddy. Even if he was breaking the law with his mining claims, he had a social relationship with Mr. Braudis. He did not have the same relationship with Mr. Ireland, and hence blamed Mr. Ireland for his troubles.
Mr. Ireland has a certain fearlessness about him. It served him well in the 1980s when he was a stellar reporter for The Aspen Times, one of the best in the state. Whether reporting on the pompous or the powerful, he seemed to exhibit no fear.
After the bombing death of a suspected cocaine kingpin, Stephen Grabow, in December, 1985, Mr. Ireland obtained a federal affidavit that named lines of local distribution and also discovered—and reported—that federal agents had exceeded their authority. None of this made him popular. He recalls being screamed at, while others feared for his life.
“People were afraid that I knew too much, and my life would be in jeopardy. And I had no way of knowing, but if you are going to do the job, you have to write the truth. There’s a chance you have to take,” says Ireland. “I knew there were people angry at me, but I didn’t know to what length they would carry it.”
Ireland, as a politician, is described as someone who is loved—but not liked. He takes a hard stand on development issues, but even allies see him as arrogant and unnecessarily rude. As county commissioner, he survived three recall elections. Now, as mayor for two years, he is facing several opponents.
On New Year’s Eve, he was going to the Aspen City Hall on New Year’s Eve to attend to what he described as a “boring land-use matter” when he was met by reporters and photographers who wanted to get in so they could shoot photos of the bomb in a nearby alley. He knew nothing of the case, and only later, after he went to a command headquarters to offer his service as mayor, did he learn that he had been identified by Blanning in a suicide note as an enemy. (He was identified as “Mike Irland”).
Two months later, Mr. Ireland shrugged off any suggestion of real danger.
“There’s always this sort of undercurrent of danger that you can’t identify when you’re in public life,” he said.
“Public life as a small-town mayor or minor official or whatever is often filled with things that are mundane and boring to the public, but there is a small number of people who fixate on your decisions.”
He continued: “Had you asked me who were the most violent and angry people who were a threat to me, he (Blanning) wouldn’t make the top five. But there aren’t a large number of such people, and you don’t think about it every day —and even if you did, you probably couldn’t do anything about it.”
It was the second would-be mining capitalist in Aspen to commit suicide. Stephan Albouy, who fought for years for the right to mine on Aspen Mountain, killed himself in 1992.
Strange landscape of superlatives
You can make the case that these three—Alma, Granby, and then Aspen—are just three random nut cases. One of them, the man who murdered the former Alma mayor, is now imprisoned in an insane asylum. But I would argue there’s something more in this strange landscape of superlatives.
Class warfare? Not in a traditional sense. Mr. Heemeyer’s bulldozer ripped into the home of the former mayor—a mayor who had operated a heavy equipment business. In Aspen, Blanning’s anger was directed against a mayor who, despite now being a lawyer, lives in dedicated affordable housing, as do about a third of Aspen’s voters.
What I see are a confluence of several factors. Alone, none of them explain the violence. Together, I think they do.
First, mountain towns have a greater sense of isolation. This is not purely physical isolation. And if you’re rich, it might not seem like isolation at all. Aspen has bunches of flights daily to the outside world. Granby is just a two-hour drive to Denver. The isolation comes from shoveling snow morning and night for seven days straight, and of winters that, even now, can last the better part of nine months. This causes people to do strange things. Think “Northern Exposure.”
Even more important is the mythos of individual freedom. This cuts several ways. Mountain towns have a higher number of Buddhists. In 1992, they also had a larger share of Ross Perot supporters. People see themselves as independent. But the sometime harshness of the weather actually argues for a greater support network. More than in cities, you need help and you need neighbors. But change—which Aspen has had in spades—can throw this out of kilter.
These mountain paradises attract, and retain, those people with deep inner conflicts. They expect the dramatic scenery, the vast playground of public lands, to sort out their inner storms. Many mountain towns have unusually high rates of alcoholism, as well as suicide. (See story above).
Some public officials are convinced there is a greater percentage of whackos as well. At Central City, an old mining town west of Denver now better known for its casinos, Gilpin County Commissioner Forrest Whitman sometimes wonders why he ever ran for office. “It does attract a lot of pretty crazy people. Maybe we’re some of them. That’s the part that bothers me a little.”
Convergence of themes
The themes came together in Jim Blanning and in Aspen. Several people I talked with who knew Blanning seemed to think that during his life he gained the self-image as a mining magnate. He was a wheeler-dealer in mining claims. Perhaps he even saw himself as a peer to those moguls who had been around when the Wheeler Opera House and the Hotel Jerome had been erected during the boom era.
In Braudis, the sheriff, whom he had known since the 1960s, he saw a friend. In Ireland, the mayor who was among the arrivals of the 1970s, he saw an evil bureaucrat, thwarting his ambitions. Aspen had changed from the 1950s of his youth to the 1980s of Ireland’s ascendancy. Blanning was not fully integrated into that change, and it ultimately made him bewildered and angry.
But for bomb-making ineptitude on Mr. Blanning’s part, the story ends with a question mark, not with a mass of tombstones. At least this time.
Rockies suicide rate 3 times U.S. average
ASPEN, Colo. – By almost any definition, Aspen and the broader Pitkin County are paradise. So why are people killing themselves so often?
The suicide rate in the county is three times the national average, and double the rate of Colorado, according to the University of Colorado-Denver Depression Center. In a recent interview, Colorado Public Radio wanted to know why?
Dr. Michael Allen, director of research at the Depression Center, explain that rural areas in the Rocky Mountain West tend to have a higher rate of suicide. It’s partly because of the greater distances between people, how hard it is to get to the doctor, and how often you see your neighbors,” he said. “We think the fabric may be a little bit looser.”
Too, people in rural areas of the Rocky Mountains tend to be more efficient in killing themselves. Guns are prevalent, and guns are a vastly more effective way of committing suicide than drug overdoses or knives.
But what about Aspen? “A lot of people who move there are adventuresome people. They like taking risks,” answered Allen.