Aspen police following leads on gas line sabotage
Law officials release photo, but man in image cleared after confirming he was waiting on gas company technician
In an effort to run down every possible lead to find the person responsible for leaving 3,500 Aspen residences and businesses without heat or hot water for two frigid days this week, police released a photo Wednesday of “person of interest.”
A police tipster reported seeing the man “behaving ‘suspiciously’ near a gas meter behind a business in downtown Aspen about 11 a.m. Tuesday, and provided pictures taken from behind and a detailed description. The location, however, was not near any of the three locations where the sabotage to city gas lines occurred Saturday night.
“The reason for the suspicion in this case was his proximity to a gas meter,” Aspen Assistant Police Chief Bill Linn said Wednesday afternoon.
However, it was not to be.
Soon after the photo was posted Wednesday evening on The Aspen Times website and on police and city social media, the man in the photo messaged The Aspen Times and called Aspen police. He identified himself as a local property manager and said he had been waiting in the alley Tuesday morning near the gas meter for Black Hills Energy technicians to arrive and restore gas service to properties he manages.
“I’m the picture,” the man told a Times reporter. “I’m not the guy!”
Linn confirmed Wednesday night that the man had been in contact with Aspen police Sgt. Rick Magnuson, who is leading the investigation, and that Magnuson was satisfied he was not a suspect.
“I get it,” said the man, who is not being identified by The Times. “We all want to find out who it is. (But) I was just literally doing the job of getting our gas back on.”
In a bit of a twist, the man said he also manages a nearby building from which police requested surveillance video for Tuesday at 11 a.m. in a quest to find the person of interest.
“We emailed them footage to find me,” he said.
The man said he recognized that he’d been in the alley at the exact time the police wanted to see footage, but did not realize they were looking for him until he saw the picture posted online. Further, he said in reviewing the video, he thought detectives would be after the person he’s 90% sure took the photo of him, who he thought was acting weird.
“I was pretty sure they were looking for her,” he said.
Linn said Wednesday night police officials would likely remove the photo from police and city social media. The Times removed the photo after confirming with police and the man in the photo.
A person or persons were able to defeat locks and possibly other security measures Saturday night and turn off gas valves in three locations, one in the city and two in the county. The two county sites were not contained in a building, though the city site was.
The action led to low pressure in the Black Hills Energy natural gas distribution system just in the immediate Aspen area, which led to 3,500 city residences and businesses without heat or hot water from between Saturday night for some and Sunday night for others until starting Tuesday morning. The heatless time period coincided with low temperatures in the single digits and a snowstorm that dropped around six inches of fresh powder on the town.
Black Hills Energy imported as many as 200 technicians from Colorado and surrounding states to go to each of the 3,500 meters and first turn them off, then re-visit them again to turn them back on once the system was pressurized again early Tuesday morning. As of Wednesday evening, 97% of meters were back on, Black Hill Energy said in an update.
The words “Earth First!” were written on a pipe and another piece of equipment at the two sites in the county, though it still wasn’t clear Wednesday whether members of the radical environmental advocacy group were involved or not.
On Wednesday, The Aspen Times received a return email from “Earth First! Journal” after seeking comment Monday. The person who responded clarified that Earth First! Journal is a magazine that reports on the environmental movement.
“We are not the same as Earth First!, which is a decentralized, autonomous network of groups and individuals around the world,” according to the email. “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. It is a set of principles or a philosophy guided by biocentrism.”
Typically, a group that wants to take credit for an action could publish a “communique through anonymous news sites like itsgoingdown.org or various animal/earth liberation sites,” the email says. No such communique was evident Wednesday on that site.
“Someone may have written the slogan on the pipe with no affiliation to the movement at all,” according to the email. “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.”
The email was signed “EFIJ Collective.”
Linn said police and sheriff’s deputies continue to investigate the incidents.
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