The Bureau of Land Management today issued its much-anticipated decision setting a path to cancel 25 previously issued oil and gas leases in the Thompson Divide area southwest of Glenwood Springs and applying new stipulations to other undeveloped leases on the White River National Forest.

The preferred alternative is contained in a final environmental impact statement that was formally released this afternoon.

Once finalized, the BLM would cancel the 25 leases held by two energy companies, SG Interests and Ursa Resources, in the Divide region while allowing 40 leases to continue. Some of those leases would come under new rules established by the Forest Service last year pertaining to surface facilities and new roads.

The decision comes despite an effort in recent weeks by industry interests to reopen the review for new public comment in light of a study showing a much higher estimate than previously thought of natural gas in western Colorado’s Piceance Basin.

“The BLM’s proposed action strikes the right balance in land management,” BLM Colorado State Director Ruth Welch said in a news release. “It respects last year’s decision by the U.S. Forest Service to maintain the character of the White River National Forest while also facilitating oil and gas development.”

White River Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams last year removed the Thompson Divide area, stretching north to south from the vicinity of Sunlight Mountain Resort to McClure Pass, from new leasing for the next two decades under the forest oil and gas leasing management plan.

The BLM decided to do a retroactive review of the 65 leases, including 40 located farther west on the White River Forest toward De Beque, because of a failure to adopt a 1993 Forest Service environmental review or to do its own review before the leases were issued between 1995 and 2012.

Today’s release of the final environmental impact statement regarding the Divide leases is a victory for the Carbondale-based Thompson Divide Coalition, which has been fighting for years to protect the eastern fringe of the Piceance in particular from drilling.

“This is a very gratifying moment for me, my family, and our entire community,” Jason Sewell, board president for the TDC, said in a separate statement.

“For nearly a decade, we’ve worked to protect these lands and the livelihoods they support,” he said. “BLM’s decision makes it clear that overwhelming public support can and should make a difference.”

During the review, thousands of comments were submitted by area residents, organizations and local governments urging the BLM to cancel the Thompson Divide leases, arguing they were illegally issued in the first place.

The preferred alternative is consistent with the BLM’s stated intention earlier this year when it said it was planning to cancel the Thompson Divide leases.

The final EIS will be open for a 30-day public comment period starting Aug. 5, and a final decision is expected this fall, the BLM said.

Industry groups have indicated that they intend to challenge the cancellation of any leases in court.

3 sisters go from homeless shelter to junior track stardom

NEW YORK — Every morning, three young sisters wake up together with their mom in one bed in a Brooklyn homeless shelter. Every afternoon, they train in a sport that they hope will put them on a path to a better life.

Tai Sheppard, 11, and sisters Rainn, 10, and Brooke, 8, have all blossomed since taking up track and field a year and a half ago, rising to the top tier of age-group national rankings and earning a spot in the Junior Olympic Games, now underway in Houston.

“This is a means to get them to college,” says their mother, Tonia Handy, “to opening doors that maybe I can’t open for them.”

Handy, a 46-year-old who works answering phones at a car service, has been raising her family alone for nearly a decade, enduring constant financial hardship and even tragedy. Three years ago, the girls’ 17-year-old half-brother was fatally shot in the street by another teen over what investigators said was a perceived insult.

She always managed to make ends meet, though, until early last year, when she and the girls were evicted from their apartment in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant section for failing to pay the rent, landing them first in a motel shelter in Queens and then in the apartment shelter on a gritty Bed-Stuy street.

“The first time we got there, there was just roaches everywhere,” Tai says. “Every time I looked on the floor, a roach. And every time I looked on the ceiling there was a roach. It was horrible.”

Handy, however, has worked to make the apartment clean and livable. But she has also made a point of not getting too comfortable in what she hopes is a temporary situation. The only decorations are the many awards the girls have won on the track, with trophies crowding the top of the lone dresser and medals hanging from every doorknob.

“I don’t bring in anything,” she says. “When I’m ready and I have an apartment, I’m just gone.”

The girls, who still have their estranged father’s last name, Sheppard, got into track in January 2015 when their baby sitter, looking for some kind of activity to keep them occupied, signed them up for a track meet that did not require any entry fees.

It just so happened that the founder of the Brooklyn-based Jeuness Track Club was at the competition scouting for new talent. By the end of the first day, Jean Bell had given her business cards to each of the girls separately with the instructions to have their mother call or just show up to practice.

It wasn’t until they turned out for practice together that Bell realized the girls were sisters.

“It’s been very tough for them,” says Bell, an administrative law judge who grew up in the nearby projects. “They’ve been moved from one shelter to the next. Their belongings are shuffled around. They don’t have a lot to work with but they do the best with what they have.”

The 20 girls on the Jeuness team come from a variety of backgrounds, but none of them are rich. Parents and coaches pool their money to provide the funds for the girls to go to the Junior Olympics.

The mission of the team is to keep girls on track, both academically and athletically to set them up for college scholarships.

The sisters are well on their way.

Each has qualified for the Junior Olympics in multiple events. Eleven-year-old Rainn was the top qualifier for the 3,000-meter run with a time of 10 minutes, 44 seconds — 30 seconds faster than the next-closest qualifier.

Tai runs the 400 and 800, as well as the 80-meter hurdles.

Brooke, the youngest, qualified for the 800, the 1,500 and the high jump, even though the team doesn’t have the equipment to allow her to practice. Her only jumps have come in competitions.

The girls are set to board a plane with the rest of their team for their first time Sunday to head to Houston for the track and field events, which begin Monday. But their mother won’t be with them.

“I’m not going, because the shelter has a curfew and I still have to work,” Handy says. “It’s not that kind of job where you can take time off. You don’t go, you don’t get paid.”

But Handy is hopeful she will soon land a new job that would make it possible to get a place of her own again, and to get most weekends off so she could attend more of her daughters’ meets.

“Next year,” she says, “I think it will be different.”

Broncos insist Manning’s legacy lives on in Denver

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Assistant coach Eric Studesville walked into the running backs room at the Denver Broncos’ headquarters when the Super Bowl champs reported for their offseason program, scribbled the number 18 on the grease board and circled it.

“We’re going to go at that pace. And we’re going to pay attention to detail like that,” running back C.J. Anderson recalled his position coach declaring on that day back in April.

Anderson smiled.

“If we do it like 18,” he said, “we’re doing it the right way.”

Even with Peyton Manning retired, the Broncos insist his legacy lives on at 13655 Broncos Parkway.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Baltimore is not trying to do things like Ray Lewis up there, and when Tom Brady decides to leave New England people won’t try to do it like that,” Anderson said. “When you find someone who’s been doing it at a high level for that long, it’s hard to say: ‘OK, Peyton’s not here. Now we can relax.’ It’s already been engrained and embedded in us. We’re wired to strive to be perfect. And if we’re not perfect, we have to do it again until we get it right.”

Manning was Denver’s de facto drill sergeant over the last four seasons, and as they begin the post-Peyton era, the Broncos say they’re just as fastidious in his wake as they were in his presence.

“I don’t think there’ll be any fall-off because we are progeny of Peyton,” suggested tight end Virgil Green. “We have guys who worked with Peyton and that’s the only way we know how to work, that’s the only way we know how to do things. Being around Peyton, just being accountable, he taught me a lot about what it means to be a true professional. And a lot of guys here have that same mindset. We learned from the best guy to ever do it.”

Like fellow sports icons Michael Jordan and Nolan Ryan, Manning, who retired a month after Denver’s 24-10 Super Bowl win over Carolina, demanded excellence and unparalleled preparation not only of himself but also from his teammates and coaches.

Loathe to cross him, colleagues and coaches devoured the playbook like college kids pulling all-nighters before finals, certain that Manning would quiz them about this nuance or that, or demand to know the reasoning behind calls and formations.

They had to be on time, on point and on top of their game lest they fall from his favor.

With Manning hitting the links now instead of eluding linebackers, cornerback Bradley Roby said the Broncos have to guard against collectively exhaling and losing a little bit of that razor-sharp edge that helped them reach the Super Bowl two of the last three seasons.

“Definitely, because I think Peyton demanded that, just being around him and his perfection and his aura. He’s a legend, one of the greatest ever. So, when everyone in the room realizes one of the greatest ever is in here right now, everyone acts different. It’s just an irreplaceable presence that’s hard to replicate,” Roby said.

That said, Roby pointed to the seven games Manning missed last season when then-backup Brock Osweiler was the starter, and attention to detail never slipped.

“There is a danger, but I think coach Gary Kubiak, he demands perfection and excellence himself,” Roby said. “Because even when Peyton wasn’t around, we were still on the same level, so I don’t think it’ll be a problem.”

Several veterans suggested the “Manning Effect” is as strong today as it was when Manning was hollering all those “Omahas” from the line of scrimmage.

“Peyton was always a big part of this,” GM John Elway declared after Manning’s retirement.

“It definitely helped me out going against him every day, knowing you can’t have an off day. But I still can’t have those off days,” cornerback Chris Harris Jr. said. “I’m still going against Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders every day. So, I’ve still got to bring my A game.”

Sanders said the same goes for the offense.

“I think Peyton showed us the blueprint,” Sanders said. “I think once someone shows you the blueprint, then it’s instilled in you.”

Kubiak said he’s seen no signs of his team letting up with Manning gone but not forgotten.

“If anything, I think I’ve seen it carry over,” Kubiak said. “I’m watching guys that are more vocal because he’s not here. I think those guys had the privilege of being around the best for so long from that standpoint, and I think you can see it.”

Well, there is one thing that Manning took with him into retirement, Anderson said.

His famous fuse.

“The only thing we’re not doing is yelling at people like he used to,” Anderson said with a hearty laugh. “We don’t want to get on to people like he used to. But we’re just easing guys into it and letting them know: ‘Hey, this is how we do things and you’re going to jump aboard right now because we’re not waiting for you.’”

Clinton promises steady hand in dangerous world

PHILADELPHIA — Promising Americans a steady hand, Hillary Clinton cast herself Thursday night as a unifier for divided times, an experienced leader steeled for a volatile world. She aggressively challenged Republican Donald Trump’s ability to do the same.

“Imagine him in the Oval Office facing a real crisis,” Clinton said as she accepted the Democratic nomination for president. “A man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

Clinton took the stage to roaring applause from flag-waving delegates on the final night of the Democratic convention, relishing her nomination as the first woman to lead a major U.S. political party. But her real audience was the millions of voters watching at home, many of whom may welcome her experience as secretary of state senator and first lady, but question her character.

She acknowledged those concerns briefly, saying “I get it that some people just don’t know what to make of me.” But her primary focus was persuading Americans to not be seduced by Trump’s vague promises to restore economic security and fend off threats from abroad.

Clinton’s four-day convention began with efforts to shore up liberals who backed Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary and it ended with an outstretched hand to Republicans and independents unnerved by Trump. A parade of military leaders, law enforcement officials and Republicans took the stage ahead of Clinton to endorse her in the general election contest with Trump.

“This is the moment, this is the opportunity for our future,” said retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen, a former commander in Afghanistan. “We must seize this moment to elect Hillary Clinton as president of the United States of America.”

American flags waved in the stands of the packed convention hall. There were persistent but scattered calls of “No more war,” but the crowd drowned them out with chants of “Hill-a-ry” and “U-S-A!”

The Democratic nomination now officially hers, Clinton has just over three months to persuade Americans that Trump is unfit for the Oval Office and overcome the visceral connection he has with some voters in a way the Democratic nominee does not.

She embraced her reputation as a studious wonk, a politician more comfortable with policy proposals than rhetorical flourishes. “I sweat the details of policy,” she said.

Clinton’s proposals are an extension of President Barack Obama’s two terms in office: tackling climate change, overhauling the nation’s fractured immigration laws, and restricting access to guns. She disputed Trump’s assertion that she wants to repeal the Second Amendment, saying “I’m not here to take away your guns. I just don’t want you to be shot by someone who shouldn’t have a gun in the first place.”

Campaigning in Iowa Thursday, Trump said there were “a lot of lies being told” at Clinton’s convention. In an earlier statement, he accused Democrats of living in a “fantasy world,” ignoring economic and security troubles as well as Clinton’s controversial email use at the State Department.

The FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s use of a private internet server didn’t result in criminal charges, but it did appear to deepen voters’ concerns with her honesty and trustworthiness. A separate pre-convention controversy over hacked Democratic Party emails showing favoritism for Clinton in the primary threatens to deepen the perception that Clinton prefers to play by her own rules.

Through four nights of polished convention pageantry, Democratic heavyweights told a different story about Clinton. The most powerful validation came Wednesday night from President Barack Obama, her victorious primary rival in 2008. Obama declared Clinton not only can defeat Trump’s “deeply pessimistic vision” but also realize the “promise of this great nation.”

Seeking to offset possible weariness with a politician who has been in the spotlight for decades, he said of Clinton: “She’s been there for us, even if we haven’t always noticed.”

Clinton was introduced by her daughter, Chelsea, who spoke warmly of her mother as a woman “driven by compassion, by faith, by kindness, a fierce sense of justice, and a heart full of love.”

A parade of speakers — gay and straight, young and old, white, black and Hispanic — cast Trump as out-of-touch with a diverse and fast-changing nation.

Khizr Khan, an American Muslim whose son was killed in military service, emotionally implored voters to stop Trump, who has called for a temporary ban on Muslim immigration.

“Donald Trump, you are asking Americans to trust you with their future,” Khan said. “Let me ask you, have you even read the United States Constitution? I will gladly lend you my copy.”

The program paid tribute to law enforcement officers killed on duty, including five who died in Dallas earlier this month in retaliation for officer-involved shootings in Minnesota and Louisiana.

“Violence is not the answer,” Dallas Sheriff Lupe Valdez said. “Yelling, screaming and calling each other names is not going to do it.”

On the convention’s closing night, Clinton sought to reach beyond the Democratic base, particularly to moderate Republicans unnerved by Trump.

Former Reagan administration official Doug Elmets announced he was casting his first vote for a Democrat in November, and urged other Republicans who “believe loyalty to our country is more important than loyalty to party” to do the same.

Following reports Russia hacked Democratic Party emails, Trump said he’d like to see Moscow find the thousands of emails Clinton deleted from the account she used as secretary of state. Hours later, Trump told Fox News he was being “sarcastic” although shortly after his remarks on Wednesday, he tweeted that Russia should share the emails with the FBI.


AP writers Catherine Lucey, Kathleen Hennessey and Lisa Lerer contributed to this report.


Follow Julie Pace at

Mountain Fair: Music, arts, ‘really fun funky stuff’

In a town well known locally for events and festivals, Mountain Fair is the biggest of them all.

The three-day festival commences Friday afternoon at Carbondale’s Sopris Park and runs through the weekend, with a wide array of booths, music, and other activities.

“I love it,” said Carbondale Arts Director Amy Kimberly, who has overseen the fair in various capacities for a decade. “There’s no shortage of things to look at and experience.”

As always, Mountain Fair includes an eclectic mix of musical acts, including bluesy Tango Alpha Tango, musical storytellers Pigpen Theatre Company, afrofunk Atomga, and western Americana with the Black Lillies. This year also marks the return of The Colorado Ambassadors of Gospel. Spoken word performances are also planned throughout the fair.

“We always try to represent many genres of music and facets of the community,” Kimberly said. “There’s a great mix of fine arts and crafts and some really fun funky stuff.”

More than 145 vendors are poised to bring everything from clothing and jewelry to wooden toys and upcycled glass flowers. New this year is the Scavenger Industries maker booth, which will offers scheduled workshops in jewelry, printmaking, rag rug crochet and more, as well as ongoing opportunities to get a Mountain Fair utility belt, a henna tattoo or letterpress your own postcard.

Of course, there’s also plenty of in park dining options in addition to the downtown restaurant scene. Catch local favorites like Señor Taco Show and Slow Groovin’ BBQ, classic fair food like kettle corn and funnel cakes, as well as more exotic options like Ethiopian and Greek cuisine.

A family area called the Oasis provides a venue for family friendly entertainment, booths and games, as well as all-ages programming like the acoustic jam Saturday afternoon. There’s also plenty of room for competition, with everything from baking to limbo to wood splitting.

In an effort to keep the event environmentally friendly, Kimberly encouraged attendees to bring their own cup, but noted that no glass containers or dogs are allowed in town parks.

The fair is also looking for volunteers for everything from selling T-shirts and Peace Patrolling the fairgrounds to Green Team and backstage security. Folks who give over four hours of their time are also eligible to receive a Mountain Fair T-shirt and enter a raffle to win their very own New Belgium Cruiser Bike. Volunteers can sign up at

With record attendance last year, Carbondale Arts is expecting as many as 20,000 visitors from around the state, country and world. This year’s theme is CommUNITY.

“This year, the feeling of unity is what we’re really going for,” Kimberly said. “Our country and world has been in a lot of conflict, and the fair is a chance for people to come together and feel connected.”

Gardner disqualified for public defender

While considering a plea deal offered by the district attorney in the case of Byron Gardner, who faces an attempted murder charge, public defenders have determined he does not qualify for their representation.

Gardner faces charges of attempted murder and child abuse stemming from an incident in February, during which investigators say he attempted to kill his wife by keeping her in a closed garage with a vehicle running.

The public defender’s office began representing Gardner on this case while he was still in custody. Defendants who are in custody are automatically qualified to be represented by the public defender’s office.

But Gardner bonded out of jail on June 30 after Judge Denise Lynch lowered his bond from $500,000 to $100,000.

Since then the public defender’s office has reviewed his application for representation and determined that he does not qualify.

Additionally, Deputy District Attorney Sarah Oszczkiewicz said she’s concerned that Gardner has underreported his assets.

Nevertheless, Gardner asked Judge Denise Lynch to review his application and appoint the public defender’s office to represent him.

He’ll next be in district court Aug. 18.

Charter schools performing well, growing quickly

Every three years, the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) publishes a comprehensive report on Colorado’s charter school sector. The 2016 State of Charter Schools report was published this month. The report — and its unsurprisingly encouraging findings — could hardly have arrived at a more critical juncture.

Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that operate with increased autonomy through a system of waivers from certain requirements. They are an integral part of public education in America. Yet these public schools increasingly find themselves under attack in Colorado and across the United States.

The Colorado Education Association and its allies backed efforts to complicate the waiver process for charter schools during Colorado’s 2016 legislative session. This alliance also aggressively opposed efforts to fund charter school students equitably under voter-approved property tax increases, thereby perpetuating a system under which Colorado charter schools annually receive roughly $2,000 less per pupil than their traditional public counterparts. This shortfall partially explains why charter school teachers make nearly 30 percent less on average than their traditional public colleagues.

These assaults defied any credible policy logic, but they provided an opportunity to rally anti-charter forces against the expansion of parental choice in public education. This begs the question: What exactly are they rallying against?

Charter schools in Colorado now educate a higher percentage of minority students than non-charter schools. They also outpace the state in the percentage of English-language learners served. Although public charter schools serve a lower percentage of low-income students than their traditional public counterparts, the gap is narrowing. The percentage of low-income charter students has roughly doubled since 2001.

Colorado charter schools continue to serve a lower percentage of students who require special education. However, a 2014 study on the subject in Colorado indicates that these differences are primarily explained by differences in application patterns and student classification, not the systematic “counseling out” of special education students often alleged by charter opponents. In fact, the study found that significantly fewer students with individualized education plans exited charter schools than exited traditional schools at the elementary level. There was no significant difference in exit rates at the middle school level.

When it comes to academics, charter schools tend to surpass traditional public schools. With only a handful of exceptions, the 2016 State of Charter Schools report found that charters outperformed non-charters in both proficiency rates and student growth on statewide assessments. Though more analysis is needed, these positive results appear to hold true for both the older TCAP assessment and the newer, more difficult PARCC assessments.

Most importantly, the explosive expansion of Colorado’s charter sector indicates that these schools are serving a significant — and growing — demand for educational options on the part of Colorado parents. The state’s first two charter schools opened in 1993-94. By 2015-16, that number had grown to 226 — an 11,200 percent increase.

Charter enrollment growth has dramatically outpaced non-charter enrollment growth, and the gap continues to grow. In 2015-16, charter schools served more than 108,000 students statewide. That represents a 30 percent increase in enrollment since 2011-12.

Though individual reasons for choosing a charter school vary, it is clear that Colorado parents are seizing opportunities for educational choice in droves.

None of this is to say that all is perfect in Colorado’s charter sector. Charter school four-year graduation and postsecondary enrollment rates lag significantly behind those of traditional public schools in Colorado. These gaps are largely explained by the charter sector’s higher proportion of online and alternative schools, which often serve extremely difficult populations of students. Yet demography must never become an excuse. As always, there is work to do.

Even so, it is clear that charter schools in Colorado are meeting the needs of an increasingly diverse population of students. Meanwhile, the sector is expanding rapidly to meet the demand of parents hungry for educational options and opportunities.

Charter opponents will no doubt continue to fight the tide. But standing between parents and the educational options they know their children deserve is unwise, and I have little doubt about which side will prevail in the end.

Ross Izard is the senior education policy analyst at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.

Hot Springs Pool in running for honor

Glenwood Hot Springs Lodge, after finishing second last year, is once again in the running to be named Best Hotel Pool in a USA Today 10Best voting competition.

Nominated by a panel of travel editors at USA Today, Glenwood Hot Springs is among a group of 20 properties in the running for recognition.

“It’s an honor to be nominated for Best Hotel Pool, especially alongside such a prestigious group of properties,” said Jeremy Gilley, director of sales and revenue for Glenwood Hot Springs and the Spa of the Rockies. “We are thrilled to once again compete for Best Hotel Pool and encourage our loyal visitors and locals to cast a vote for Glenwood Hot Springs.”

Last year Glenwood Hot Springs Lodge was a 10Best top finisher, coming in second behind the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas. This year the field is no less competitive; among the other nominees are four resorts in Hawaii, three casinos, two iconic California hotels, one Disney property and another hot springs resort.

The winners will be determined by the number of votes cast. Voting at is limited to once per day. Voting ends at 10 a.m. MDT Monday.

The 2016 contest winners will be announced on Friday, Aug. 5, and will be featured in USA Today.

Carbondale’s Third Street Center seeks major upgrades

Six years after transforming from an old elementary school into a buzzing community center, Carbondale’s Third Street Center is looking for nearly $500,000 to start its next phase of redevelopment.

If anything, the initial effort underestimated how much of a hub of activity the Third Street Center would become for the region, said Colin Laird, the facility’s director. On his list are several needed upgrades that weren’t addressed in the first overhaul of the school.

The center had planned to pursue of Department of Local Affairs grant for the improvements. But a recent British Petroleum lawsuit against DOLA has the agency paying millions to BP, so that grant was the first thing to go.

The center has already approached Garfield County commissioners, and Commissioner Tom Jankovsky said the town government should apply for a grant from the Federal Mineral Lease District.

The FMLD is a county-built entity that’s distributed more $15 million from federal mineral leases in the last five years for municipal infrastructure projects.

In this preliminary stage of the next redevelopment effort, Laird said center leaders are unsure of who else will be approached for money. He expects that a more formal fundraising campaign will start in the fall.

But if this effort goes well, Laird and the board plan to start the redevelopment with the building’s gym, which was left largely untouched while the rest of the elementary school was revamped six years ago.

The space works well for events that don’t need much light, like for a production of “James and the Giant Peach” that Theatre Aspen performed in the gym Thursday.

Laird envisions a design for the gym that’s much like the Calaway Room (though about three times as big) with plenty of natural lighting flooding in.

The board plans to bring in natural light by adding two skylights, six windows and new sets of windowed doors.

These upgrades, along with some improvements to the gym’s interior and acoustics, would cost about $150,000, Laird estimates.

One of the biggest planned projects is to expand the building’s parking, including adding 40 to 50 parking spaces on the east side of the building. The Third Street Center board also wants to install “energy-producing shaded plaza” on south side.

Those projects are estimated at about $250,000.

Laird also wants to upgrade the facility’s kitchen, restrooms and old sewer lines that are still cast iron from the 1960s.

FMLD has already given the center of couple of mini-grants totaling $30,000 for heating systems, water lines, restrooms and some sewer line work.

The board will be looking for another $30,000 for men’s and women’s main restrooms and another $40,000 to clean and line the drain lines in the older part of the building, he said.

Laird pointed out Thursday that the main restroom was never upgraded from its original purpose for elementary-aged children. So the sinks and mirrors are still low enough to force grown adults to stoop down.

Improvements to Third Street itself are also planned to get underway this construction season. The town has $400,000 budgeted for improvements to what has become a busy corridor leading from downtown to the Third Street Center and Carbondale Branch Library.

And the design team has just recently released draft plans for these streetscape improvements.

Aspen hostage-taker: I told you I was going to kill you

The most bizarre moment in the first court appearance Thursday by the man charged with holding three other men at gunpoint Wednesday occurred when one of the hostages addressed the court.

“After I saw the gun at my face, I thought of myself as a dead man,” Mark Meredith, 23, told Aspen District Judge Chris Seldin.

“I told you I was going to kill you,” said Brolin McConnell, 30, the Colorado Springs resident who was sitting in jailhouse orange and shackles, next to where Meredith stood, and has been charged with the crime.

“He told me he was going to kill me and put a bullet through my temple,” said Meredith, a Vermont native and current Aspen resident.

“If …” said McConnell.

“The ‘if’ was if the cops showed up,” Meredith said.

“Well, they did show up and I didn’t kill you,” McConnell said.

“Because I ran,” Meredith said.

The nearly hour and a half-long hearing contained many such moments.

At one point, when Seldin attempted to explain the legal definition of first-degree kidnapping – which will require a mandatory minimum of 16 years in prison if he’s convicted of the charge – McConnell protested.

“Your honor, I didn’t kidnap anybody,” he said. “I just held him hostage.”

McConnell repeatedly told the judge, “I fear for my life.” He asked for and received a book of Colorado statutes so he could read along with the judge. He refused to sign mandatory protection orders forbidding his interacting with the 12 victims in the case. He asked why he wasn’t charged with possessing marijuana and guns together, because that’s “not legal,” he said.

“I don’t feel safe in this town, or anywhere really,” McConnell said. “I’m all alone in this world.”

In addition to the kidnapping charge, McConnell is also facing felony menacing and misdemeanor false imprisonment and prohibited use of a firearm. Seldin ordered him held in lieu of a $500,000 cash-only bond.

After the hearing, McConnell told a reporter he’s a real estate agent in both Colorado and Florida, though he said he lives in Colorado. He also admitted he didn’t know any of the men he held at gunpoint.

An employee at a Florida real estate firm listed on McConnell’s Linkedin profile said Thursday he didn’t work there anymore.

A woman who said she was McConnell’s mother answered the phone Thursday at a Colorado Springs real estate agency listed in the Linkedin profile. She was crying and said she knew what had occurred in Aspen on Wednesday.

“I don’t have any comment,” she said. “Things are very overwhelming right now.”

She then hung up.

In an interview after court Thursday, Meredith said he and a friend from Aspen had gone up to the Lincoln Creek area to go bouldering, drink beer and camp. They first passed McConnell about 200 feet after the initial bridge. His gray Toyota Tacoma was parked at an angle in the road, though they were able to make it past, he said.

They went another 400 feet or so, and ran into two large, “military-type” guys in a white truck who told them soft-sided tent camping wasn’t allowed in the area because of recent bear incidents, according to Meredith and police reports. So they turned around, but had to get around McConnell’s truck again.

“He gets out and I thought he was going to help us,” Meredith said. “He walks around the front of the car … then he looked back, pulled the gun out and pointed it at us.

“He said, ‘You guys are in on this.’ He had this whole idea he was being watched by cameras.”

He asked for Meredith’s friend’s iPhone and appeared to listen to it, he said. He made statements about the FBI and that drones were “all over the place,” Meredith said. At one point crows flew by and McConnell shot at them.

“He thought they were drones,” he said.

McConnell had a 9mm handgun and a .38-caliber and was pointing them at Meredith and his friend’s heads, he said.

“He was going back and forth whether he was going to shoot us,” Meredith said. “He said, ‘I’m going to put this bullet in your temple.’”

He opened the tailgate of his truck. He made the two men put their hands on his truck and asked if they were burning, which they were so Meredith asked if they could put their hands on their heads instead.

That was when a third car pulled up and a man with a cast on his foot got out, Meredith said. This was a 21-year-old man named Blake Ramelb, who wrote a lengthy blog post Thursday describing his ordeal.

McConnell asked Ramelb about his race, according to Meredith and Ramelb. He told him he was 50 percent white, 50 percent Filipino, according to his statement. This seemed to make McConnell pick on Ramelb, Meredith said.

McConnell also had all three men take their shirts off to prove they didn’t have microphones or guns in their waistbands, Meredith said.

At that point, another car pulled up “and saved our lives,” Meredith said. That car distracted McConnell enough to allow Meredith’s friend to first run off, then Meredith was able to run away, he said.

That left only Ramelb, who couldn’t run because of the cast on his foot, he said in his blog.

“I knew if I had any chance, I would have to talk him out of shooting me,” Ramelb wrote in the blog. “…I knew if I wanted to survive I needed to stall this guy from killing me at least so the cops could get in position to take him out.”

So he tried to talk to him about his family and the movie character Jason Bourne, he wrote. Then Pitkin County sheriff’s deputies arrived.

He told them he wanted $100 million, according to Ramelb and police reports. The deputies were trying to communicate with him, and McConnell had Ramelb yell back to them.

“The gunman threatened to shoot my knee caps off, then wanted to shoot my surgical foot,” Ramelb wrote. “He had me turn away from him. I thought he was going to shoot me.

“Then he fired. I thought I was dead … but he missed. I felt the velocity of the bullet by me leg …”

Pitkin County Deputy Ryan Turner said he didn’t see the first shot, but vividly remembers seeing the second shot.

“I did definitely see him rip a shot off right at the hostage’s feet,” Turner said. “He said, ‘He’s next’ and motioned with the gun at the kid.

“I was just like, ‘He’s gonna kill this kid and there’s nothing we’re gonna be able to do about it.”

Eventually, Ramelb said he saw McConnell, who was sitting in his truck while Ramelb stood outside, move further into the truck with the gun still pointed at him.

“Then he turned around for a second,” Ramelb wrote. “When I saw that initial movement, I ran (hopped) behind the truck bed.”

Ramelb was able to escape. McConnell peacefully gave up almost as soon as Ramelb ran away, Turner said.

“It’s hitting me hard as I write down what happened to me yesterday,” Ramelb wrote, “but all I can say to myself is, ‘I’m alive.’

“From today on, I will always remember this experience. It’s not the best memory, but I realized at that moment that life is something worth living. I would like to thank everyone who gave me the fighting chance to still be here today.”