Jim Blanning: An Aspen experience that turned to bitterness
ASPEN, Colorado ” Jim Blanning never would have exploded the four bombs he planted in Aspen on New Year’s Eve day, several of his friends insisted Thursday.
People who knew him for decades said Blanning had a very generous side and a genuine interest in helping other working-class folks in Aspen before he was convicted for an illegal land grab and sent to prison in the mid-1990s.
Gaard Moses, a friend of Blanning for almost 40 years, said he wouldn’t hurt anyone, let alone kill them.
“I can’t believe he would have” ignited the bombs, Moses said. “It just wasn’t in him. Jim never would have hurt anybody.”
But he also didn’t doubt that Blanning possessed the ability to make bombs that would have exploded, if that was his desire. Blanning was exposed to dynamite throughout his life in mines. “He was certainly no stranger to explosives and firearms,” Moses said.
Pitkin County Sheriff Bob Braudis, who had been friends with Blanning since the late 1960s, also said he didn’t see Blanning as a mass murderer despite a threatening letter he wrote promising “mass death.”
“I’m dumbfounded,” said Gary Wright, an attorney who represented Blanning in some legal battles over property and development issues in the 1980s and 1990s. “The Jim Blanning that I knew never would do that.”
Instead, Aspen old-timers saw Blanning, 72, as a man disillusioned over the changes the town experienced and angry that he couldn’t cash in on the soaring real estate prices.
“Jim always had big dreams,” Wright said. “He never had the money to make them happen.”
Those dreams were stoked when Blanning was a kid growing up in Aspen. His mother, Sistie Blanning, moved to Aspen with Jim, 4, and his two younger brothers during World War II, according to a 1976 story in The Aspen Times.
James C. Blanning, Jim’s dad, was a West Point graduate who served in the U.S. Army. He was killed during fighting in the Philippine Islands ” a fate the family didn’t learn for three years. Sistie Blanning lived in the Hotel Jerome with the three boys.
In the 1976 story, Sistie said that Jim used to talk to old miners in the Jerome Bar, and he caught a bug for working claims on Aspen Mountain for silver and exploring the old mines that honeycomb the area.
“He started exploring mines as a kid. He went where God would fear to go,” his mom told the paper.
Blanning graduated from Aspen High School in 1954 and was on the ski team. While many of his classmates left Aspen for college, Blanning stuck around. He was a driver for Jim Hayes and Mary Eshbaugh Hayes’ small trucking company in 1956-57.
“He was always very, very handsome. A ladies man,” said Mary Eshbaugh Hayes.
Her husband had to fire him because Blanning’s truck was often parked in the alleys behind the houses of various Aspen women while he was supposed to be on the job, Eshbaugh Hayes said.
Blanning was married seven times to six women. He married one of the women twice, according to Braudis. Like his mother, Blanning liked to party, Hayes recalled.
“He was always so wild,” she said.
Moses said he met Blanning partying in Aspen in the 1960s. They were at the Benedict gravel pit east of town with a couple of gals and lots of booze. Blanning rode an old single-gear bike out there. As the beer flowed, Blanning hopped on the bike and put one of the girls on the handlebars. He ended up spilling the bike and the girl into the water, all in good fun, Moses said.
Blanning also had a serious side. He did meticulous research on the ownership of mining claims as early as his teen years. Mining claim ownership is notoriously complex. Fractional interests were traded by miners seeking a grubstake, and the silver crash of 1893 clouded the title of many. Blanning learned about the rights of mining claim holders and could spot when claims were apparently abandoned.
“I don’t know anybody who knew as much about mining claims than Jim Blanning,” Moses said. “He would educate lawyers on the 1872 mining law.”
Blanning started selling mining claims to his friends for a few thousand dollars in the late 1960s and 1970s. He warned them they might have to clear up ownership questions in court cases known as quiet title actions.
“He made it possible for working schmos to buy property on the backside of Aspen Mountain,” Moses said. “He helped a lot of people ” mechanics, bakers and whatnot.”
Braudis said Blanning was the kind of guy who wanted to help people, sometimes using his snowcat to pull out the Jeep of a stranded hunter in Hunter Creek Valley, other times helping a friend out financially.
“He was a very generous man when he was in a position to be,” the sheriff said.
But his wheeling and dealing in mining claims put him at odds with Pitkin County officials in the late 1980s and especially the 1990s. The county government more aggressively examined development applications on land that Blanning claimed to own or that he sold. Pitkin County thwarted Blanning’s plans for development of mining claims on the back of Aspen Mountain.
Three incidents punctuated his ongoing fight with county officials. He threw a copy of the Colorado Revised Statutes through the window of the Pitkin County commissioners’ old meeting room at the courthouse. During the summer of 1994 he climbed out of a second-story window at the courthouse, tied a rope around a fixture and his waist and eluded law officers’ efforts to pull him in by shifting to different areas around the Lady Justice statue in a cat-and-mouse game.
“I spent hours before I finally talked him down,” Braudis said.
Blanning also harassed the county commissioners and some staff members while they were relaxing in the Cantina bar and restaurant after an official meeting. He wore nothing but a dildo and taunted the assembled officials. Blanning was cited for indecent exposure.
That minor infraction came back to haunt him when he was convicted in 1996 for one of his alleged land scams.
“I saw the good in him, and I saw the insanity in him,” Braudis said.
Blanning learned through research that longtime Aspenite Dieter Bibbig allowed a corporation he created to expire by not registering it with the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. That defunct corporation owned Bibbig’s property on Park Avenue in Aspen.
Blanning was accused of resurrecting that same corporation. Bibbig learned later, when he moved to cure the corporation, that his property tax was paid. He learned that Blanning, someone he’d known since the early 1960s, snagged his property and was forced to engage in costly civil litigation battle to regain his property.
Meanwhile, word of the fiasco spread and the district attorney’s office filed criminal charges. Blanning was convicted, and Judge J.E. DeVilbiss sentenced him to 16 years in prison. Braudis said the late DeVilbiss told him he had no discretion in the sentence. To make matters worse for Blanning, the indecent exposure conviction meant he started his sentence with sexual offenders.
Blanning said in his suicide note, “For the first two years I was in prison I woke up every [day] wishing I was dead.”
Braudis said he exchanged letters with Blanning while he was in prison. His plight eventually improved. He was transferred to a work camp in Rifle or Delta, according to Braudis, and eventually to a halfway house in Lakewood. His time behind bars was reduced with good behavior, and he was on parole at the time he planted the bombs in Aspen, according to the Colorado Department of Corrections.
Bibbig said he learned from friends Wednesday evening that Blanning was the suspect for planting the bombs. He said he slept that night with a rifle next to his bed. Ironically it was a rifle he said he purchased from Blanning in the early 1960s.
“I said to myself, ‘Maybe he’ll pay me a visit,'” Bibbig said. Nevertheless, he claimed he slept well.
“It was a wild thing, you know,” Bibbig said. “It was one of us that went crazy.”