Aspen gas line sabotage in December continues to perplex investigators
In more than two decades with the Aspen Police Department, Sgt. Rick Magnuson has been involved in only two other cases that rise to the level of the gas line sabotage that occurred here the day after Christmas and left thousands without heat.
The first was the string of violent armed robberies committed by a group of Aspen teenagers in 1999, while the second was the case of Aspen native Jim Blanning, who left four gasoline bombs disguised as holiday gifts around town on Dec. 31, 2008 before killing himself.
“In the 25 years I’ve been here, this is the one I really want to solve,” Magnuson, who heads APD’s investigations unit, said this week. “This is one I want to get.”
However, despite nearly a month of intense investigation by two APD detectives, two investigators with the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office and help from an FBI agent in Glenwood Springs, the case is progressing slowly, he said.
“It’s a big puzzle we’re trying to solve,” Magnuson said. “We’ve got the outside done and we’re trying to build it. We’re working our way to the middle.”
The sabotage occurred Dec. 26 at three locations around Aspen: two in unincorporated Pitkin County and one within the city limits. At the request of police, The Aspen Times is not releasing the exact locations.
Black Hills Energy — which owns and operates the natural gas pipeline — was notified about 8:30 p.m. that gas pressure at a location in Aspen was non-existent, police have said. Approximately two-and-a-half hours later, a resident near the sabotaged location in the city called police and reported unusual noises that sounded like a gas leak.
When officers and Black Hills technicians responded to that location, where the gas line protrudes from of the ground, they discovered the building that houses the pipes had been burglarized and locks securing gas valves that control flow had been cut, according to Magnuson and previous statements by police.
Sheriff’s deputies and Black Hills techs later discovered similar sabotage at the two county locations, which are out in the open and not housed in buildings. The saboteur or saboteurs wrote “Earth First!” in what appears to be black marker on gas line infrastructure in two spots at each of the two county locations, Magnuson said.
Similar graffiti was not found inside the building that housed the gas pipes within city limits, he said.
Earth First! is a radical environmental advocacy organization founded in 1980 here in the southwestern U.S. with the slogan, “No compromise in defense of mother earth,” according to encyclopedia.com
At first, the problem that Saturday night didn’t appear to be a huge issue, Magnuson said, though police clearly recognized the unusual circumstances and made the case a high priority. Black Hills techs initially were able to turn on the gas valves again, though some residences did not regain gas service.
The magnitude of the problem became clear the next day – Sunday – when Black Hills realized it would have to manually turn off gas meters at approximately 3,500 residences in Aspen, re-pressurize the system, test it, then re-boot each of the 3,500 gas meters again. Those homes would remain without heat or hot water for three days as temperatures dipped into the single digits at night, and a snowstorm bore down on the area.
Aspen Police Chief Richard Pryor, who was on vacation though still in town, cut short his time off and marshaled his officers and detectives, Magnuson said.
“He said, ‘Whatever you need, you got it,’” he said, adding that Sheriff Joe DiSalvo did the same.
At that point, police and sheriff’s office personnel established a multi-agency task force and got to work collecting evidence from the three crime scenes.
Detectives could discern footprints in the snow that appeared to lead to and from the three sites, though they were of dubious quality because of the number of Black Hills techs who had, by that time, tromped all over the areas.
“It was a little frustrating,” Magnuson said, adding that it was not possible to determine suspects’ footprints from Black Hills workers.
However, police are working under the theory that the person or persons responsible for the sabotage used a vehicle to get from location to location, he said. He declined to comment on which site was hit first or whether all were hit simultaneously, though police have said previously they were targeted at about the same time.
Investigators also focused on the gas valves that were tampered with.
The sabotage was not just a matter of turning one valve, Magnuson said.
“It was not quite that simple,” he said, declining to say exactly how it was done.
The gas outage that occurred was solely focused on the city of Aspen and narrowly avoided affecting Aspen Valley Hospital in the Castle Creek Valley. Affected areas included the downtown core, Aspen Mountain and Aspen Skiing Co. infrastructure, Red Mountain, Cemetery Lane, Mountain Valley and up Highway 82 toward Independence Pass just past McFarlane Creek, according to a Black Hills outage map.
“This was a targeted attack on the city,” Magnuson said. “That allows you to think about who would have the motivation to do that based on who was harmed.”
Almost certainly, the sabotage took special knowledge.
“Any person on the street would not know how to find these stations or how to turn them off,” Magnuson said. “That’s the thing we’re going on based on consultations with experts.”
Detectives also went to every house between the first location and the second location, which included about 50 homes, looking for video that might help. They received video from three, but it didn’t yield any significant leads, he said.
They also looked at video from Roaring Fork Transportation Authority buses that were running the night of Dec. 26, though that wasn’t productive either, Magnuson said.
In the course of the investigation, detectives have interviewed approximately 15 people they though might have been involved. Some of those interviews included the Glenwood-based FBI agent, he said. Most “were not local residents,” he said. He declined to say whether any were current or former Black Hills Energy employees.
“’We looked at people who might have a grudge,” Magnuson said. “No one rose to the level of a suspect I would say.”
Finally, there’s the issue of Earth First!
A representative of “Earth First! Journal” responded Dec. 30 to an email from The Aspen Times and clarified that Earth First! is a “decentralized, autonomous network of groups and individuals around the world.” Typically, a group or person who wants to take credit for an action might publish a “communiqué” on animal/earth liberation websites, the email said.
“Whoever is called to use the Earth First! slogan when taking action to defend the wild is able to use it since EF! is not an organization and does not have members,” the unidentified person wrote. “Someone may have written the slogan on the pipe with no affiliation to the movement at all. It happens all the time.
“The Journal has no comment on the action taken in Aspen. We are currently on hiatus and had nothing to do with this event.”
No communiqués have been found, and the FBI hasn’t detected any “chatter” before or after the gas line sabotage, Magnuson said. Detectives are working with the FBI – which employs specialists – on handwriting analysis of the Earth First! tags, he said.
Aspen investigators and the FBI also haven’t found any similar events in the United States in the past 10 years.
“It’s possibly someone from Earth First!, though they have disavowed it,” Magnuson said. “Or it could be a red herring.”
He said investigators currently do not consider the sabotage to be “domestic terrorism.”
“We consider these to be felonies,” Magnuson said.
Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn said labeling the event domestic terrorism implies a motive and a political outcome investigators simply can’t confirm at this time.
“In our world, that is a politically loaded term,” Linn said. “Terrorism has a specific intent to cause a political action. We’re not there yet.”
Meanwhile, Black Hills has beefed up security at the three sites that were tampered with, Magnuson said.
A Black Hills Energy spokeswoman declined Friday to comment on the situation, including how much the sabotage cost the company. Magnuson declined to speculate on that amount, though he noted that it was likely substantial as the company imported about 200 technicians from neighboring states to fix the problem while paying them overtime, per diem and hotels, as well as bringing in 4,000 space heaters for local residents.
An FBI spokeswoman in Denver said in an email Friday that the agency does not comment on investigations and referred a reporter back to Aspen police for information.
Black Hills continues to offer a $10,000 reward for information that leads to the conviction of anyone for the crime. Anyone with information relating to the case can call the Aspen Police Department at 970-920-5400.
“We’re still looking for help from the public,” Magnuson said. “Most cases like this are solved with a tip or an eyewitness, but that hasn’t happened here.”