Aspen New Year’s Eve Bomb Threat

Proves—once again—the value of a local paper

ASPEN, Colo. — The hottest item in the frigid early morning hours of New Year’s Day in this fashionable ski resort town was the free street edition of The Aspen Times, featuring this stark double-deck headline: “Bomb Threats Paralyze Aspen.” The front page featured an exclusive hand-written note delivered to the paper the night before by an embittered Aspen native who had left handmade gasoline bombs at local banks, demanded cash, and threatened the community with “a very horrible price in blood.”

The January 1 print edition of this venerable 127-year-old paper climaxed a challenging afternoon and night of coverage on the paper’s Web site, one of the few sources of information for bewildered visitors and locals whose New Year’s Eve plans were dramatically upended by a mass evacuation of downtown Aspen. Fancy restaurants, nightclubs, and bars, decked out with balloons and streamers, sat empty as bomb experts and the FBI arrived to deal with what police cryptically called “a credible threat.” Aspen Times editor Bob Ward said that coverage of “this macabre local story” began in the mid-afternoon on December 31, when a reporter went to investigate police-scanner reports of what he thought was a mere robbery, but which soon led police to cordon off a sixteen-block radius that included the newspaper’s own offices.

The bizarre bomb plot, which soon caught the attention of regional, national, and international media, proved once again the value of having local newspapers available to do the vital legwork involved in reporting a breaking news story. The downtown evacuation lasted for about twelve hours, creating a tense and uncertain atmosphere as authorities worked to defuse four bombs. Aspen is unusual these days in having two local daily papers. The thirty-year-old Aspen Daily News, independent and locally owned, also covered the Blanning saga, providing online news during the bomb scare and front-page coverage in its first three papers of 2009. Both papers, supported by advertising revenues, are distributed for free in the towns throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, where Aspen is located.

The note received by The Aspen Times

Early in the evening on New Year’s Eve, after police had evacuated the downtown area, The Aspen Times itself became part of the story when an employee found an envelope left at the paper’s front door, addressed “Personal to the Aspen Times Editor” that had a scribbled “last will and testament” on the outside and a copy of the ranting typed “mass death” bomb threat received earlier by local banks. The note surfaced as police were searching for a suspect seen in a bank surveillance video, who was later identified as seventy-two-year-old Jim Blanning.

According to Ward, Blanning was well known around town as a colorful, hard-partying Aspen local who began harassing the authorities, fell into trouble with the law, landed in prison, and, in a1994 stunt, threatened to hang himself from the top of the local courthouse. This time it was Blanning’s last stand, and, at 2:19 a.m. January 1, police found him dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head inside his green Jeep Cherokee on a road outside of town.

Ironically, the bomb threat story broke on a day in which The Aspen Times had featured a front-page letter to readers about the current threat to the survival of local newspapers, including many in surrounding Rocky Mountain towns. Publisher Jenna Weatherred wrote that the paper’s owner, Colorado Mountain News Media Company, had decided to close three of its local papers and that the Aspen paper was undergoing considerable changes as well, including cutting staff by nearly twenty percent, reducing the number of papers it distributes, and—starting this week—eliminating its Sunday paper, the least profitable edition.

“My hope is that, once this recession turns around and things feel more secure in the valley, we will be able to bring back the Sunday daily and our small community weekly papers,” said Weatherred. “Making these decisions was not easy, but I am honored to work at The Aspen Times, and I believe it is my job to make these difficult decisions and ensure a strong future for this business.”

On the day of the bomb threat, the Times was operating with a skeleton crew on what was expected to be the usual raucous New Year’s Eve, complete with town fireworks over Aspen Mountain. When staff reporter Wyatt Haupt, Jr. heard some unusual “chatter” about 2:30 p.m. on his scanner, he took off for the nearby Wells Fargo bank. The police were putting up yellow tape and told him about a bomb threat there and at the Vectra bank two blocks away. He called back to the paper, which dispatched reporter Katie Redding and photographer Jordan Curet.

“We canvassed the town as best we could,” said Haupt, who initially assumed it might be a hoax. But over the next few hours, the seriousness of the threat sunk in and the police-restricted area grew from two to sixteen blocks. When the bomb perpetrator was identified as Blanning, the local media called upon years of contact and personal experience to explain how a local boy, fascinated with the mining history of this old mountain town, came to hate what Aspen had become and his own failure to capitalize on it.

The two Aspen papers were the first media outlets on the scene providing coverage and information as the saga unfolded. Their Web sites, with updates from police and press conferences, became a prime source of information for the community. They also became a prime source of information for outside media outlets. Haupt said that it seemed like “they were hijacking our stuff off the Web.”

The discovery of Blanning’s suicide put a quick end to the mystery of who had concocted the bomb threat. But throughout New Year’s Day, the episode fueled online and television cable news coverage, often accompanied by the Blanning hand-written note and photos credited to the two Aspen papers. NBC Nightly News featured a photo by Curet. The Denver papers jumped onto the story online and splashed it over their front pages a day later, with both the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News (which is up for sale and in danger of closing) using an Aspen Daily News photo and Blanning’s note to The Aspen Times. Stories in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times relied on correspondents reporting from Denver, and The Washington Post used an AP story from Aspen.

“Every now and then Aspen becomes the center of the universe,” said Ward, who recalled the media onslaught ensuing from the February, 2005 suicide of gonzo author Hunter S. Thompson, and the accidental death of former Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s son Michael Kennedy, who struck a tree skiing here on New Year’s Eve, 1997.

This year’s foiled bomb plot, including the suicide note addressed to his paper, “certainly made it the weirdest,” said Ward. The story didn’t draw as much worldwide media attention as the Thompson and Kennedy stories, but it had far bigger local repercussions. The bomb threat fortunately did not harm anyone, but was nonetheless a devastating blow to the stressed Aspen economy on the biggest night of the year.

This vacationing reporter’s plans for a big New Year’s Eve celebration at Aspen’s L’Hosteria Restaurant, located down the block from the threatened Vectra Bank, came to an abrupt halt when police evacuated the area. Instead, our family settled into our rented condo and followed the Aspen papers’ Web sites for news about the bomb threats. And on New Year’s Day, I was among the first to grab a copy of the paper from the news box outside The Aspen Times’s funky blue-and-purple wooden building on Main Street. Its name was proudly emblazoned on the building’s front, along with the date of its founding, 1881. On the wall inside, twenty-four award plaques from the Colorado Press Association proved the value of a local paper.

“Without the local news media in an event like this, information would be hard to come by for everyone,” said Ward. “It’s nice to have something prove our relevance when times are tough. Local newspapers have an important place, thank God.”

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.