DENVER — A 72-year-old man who shot himself to death early Thursday was blamed for planting four bombs around Aspen, Colo., forcing the evacuation of downtown and the cancellation of New Year's Eve festivities there. Police said he left a note at the local newspaper insisting "I was and am a good man."
Jim Blanning had feuded with officials for years, reportedly angry that the laid-back town of his birth had transformed itself into a glitzy destination for wealthy vacationers.
Blanning was found dead in his Jeep east of town, police spokesman Bill Linn said at a news conference.
Two of the bombs were found at banks, and two on a sled in an alley. Police said Blanning left notes threatening that Aspen would "pay a horrible price in blood" unless each bank gave him $60,000 in used $100 bills.
The county sheriff identified Blanning from bank surveillance tapes as the man who in 1995 had threatened to hang himself from the courthouse to protest the town's elite, Linn said.
Linn said the devices could have been dangerous. Each consisted of a box in wrapping paper balanced on pizza boxes. Inside were rubber bladders holding 5 gallons of gasoline, a device that appeared to be a cellphone trigger and a mousetrap-type device to stop the explosives from being disarmed.
It was unclear whether the devices would have worked, Linn said, but a bomb squad detonated one that "resulted in a pretty big fireball."
Linn said Blanning acted alone.
In addition to the notes with the bombs, police said, Blanning left one at the Aspen Times, alluding to a stint in prison: "For the first two years I was in prison I woke up every [sic] wishing I was dead," he wrote. "Now it comes to pass. I was and am a good man."
In that note, Blanning alluded to a fifth bomb in a "high-end watering hole," but Linn said police found no other explosives.
The newspaper reported Thursday that Blanning had clashed with local officials about claims to old mine sites surrounding the town. It said that after one ruling went against him, he confronted county officials at a local bar wearing a sock on his crotch. He later threatened to hang himself outside the second floor of the courthouse.
Blanning was prosecuted for setting up corporations that posed as historical owners of the mining claims and selling them to investors, the newspaper reported. He was sentenced to prison in 1996. It was unclear how much time he served.
Bookings in the town are down 15% amid the recession, and locals had hoped to make some up some lost ground on New Year's Eve.
Linn, the police spokesman, said, "There is just no way to put a dollar value to the losses to businesses in town." It was at least in the millions, he added.
On Wednesday afternoon, as the bombs were found, New Year's Eve party preparations were underway. At the Caribou Club, a swank below-ground restaurant and nightclub, workers were hanging balloons and preparing for the festivities, which would include a special tasting menu for 180 guests at a cost of $750 apiece. Then word came that police were closing the streets. By 9 p.m. it became clear that, with so many streets closed, no one could get downtown.
The club's employees filed out.
At the nearby Hotel Jerome, a stately Victorian lodge near one of the targeted banks, reverse-911 calls alerted employees to the emergency. They hustled guests into a building a block away.
Unable to make their New Year's parties, the guests crammed into the pizzeria on the first floor of their impromptu shelter until they could return, hotel manager Brendan Carlin said.
With nowhere else to go, guests swamped the hotel's bar and restaurant. It was a scene replicated across town. "All the big hotels in town were rockin'," Carlin said.
Debbie Braun, president of the Aspen Chamber Resort Assn., said residents and businesses were relieved the scare was the act of a lone eccentric and were hoping the fear would fade quickly.
"Aspen's got this crazy nature about it in general and I guess it's one more story for the record books," she said.
On Thursday night, the town tried to recapture the magic, and some of the lost dollars, by rescheduling its many parties and shooting off fireworks.
"We're trying to get in the mood and still celebrate New Year's," said Brenda Barna, a hostess at the Caribou Club who spent the previous night locked in the nightspot as police and bomb squads roamed the streets.
Alex Noronha, manager of the popular bar and restaurant Cantina, said her restaurant and many others will have to refund the hundreds of party tickets they sold -- losing money they were counting on to make up for a lackluster season.
"Moneywise, everybody lost a lot of money," she said. "But it's better to lose money than lose your life."