Aspen Bomb Scare Suspect Found Dead

Police said this surveillance photo showed Jim Blanning, 71, wanted in connection with suspicious packages left at two Aspen, Colo. banks. Blanning was later found dead. KKTV

The threat that shut down this resort town on New Year's Eve was real: Police said Thursday that four packages in holiday wrapping held dangerous bombs made of gasoline and cell phones parts and came with notes warning of "mass death."

The man suspected of placing the bombs in two banks and in an alleyway on Wednesday shot and killed himself a short time later, police said. The body of James Chester Blanning, who grew up in Aspen and lived in Denver since 2003, was found Thursday, police said. Police did not give a motive for his actions.

Blanning, 72, walked into two Aspen banks at about 2:30 p.m. Wednesday and left packages wrapped in holiday paper along with notes saying the boxes contained bombs. The notes threatened "mass death" and demanded $60,000 cash, along with criticisms of President George Bush, Assistant Aspen Police Chief Bill Linn said at a news conference.

Blanning's 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. All four boxes contained homemade bombs made of gasoline and cell phone components, police said.

"We believe the suspect abandoned his plan halfway through," said Linn, who said Blanning's notes didn't say which other two banks he planned to target.

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.

The note 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.

The threats prompted police to clear 16 blocks - nearly all of downtown Aspen - of holiday revelers, putting a damper on New Year's Eve festivities. Residents were allowed to return at 4 a.m. Thursday.

Linn said that police bomb squads detonated the bombs once the area was cleared, and that one of the packages created a fireball outside a Wells Fargo bank when police detonated it. No one was injured.

Linn said the bombs were dangerous, containing plastic bladders of gasoline, but Linn did not say how sophisticated they were.

Blanning was identified by the Pitkin County sheriff on a surveillance tape from one of the banks. Linn said the suspect was well known to police and that the sheriff remembered Blanning from a 1994 suicide attempt atop the Pitkin County Courthouse.

By Wednesday evening, police released Blanning's name and picture. Linn said that early New Year's Day, Blanning was found dead alone in his Jeep Cherokee east of Aspen. In the car police found a rifle and a handgun they believe Blanning used to kill himself.

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 skier, 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 events Wednesday put a crimp on celebrations in the resort town, a popular New Year's Eve destination that typically draws tens of thousands of people. A fireworks show was delayed 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.
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