Suspected Arson Fire at Aspen, Colorado Complex Kills One; Victim Emerges a Suspect

ASPEN, Colo. (AP) -- Sheryl Robinson heard the fire alarm before dawn on Monday, put on a housecoat and slippers and walked outside into the freezing, black night to see part of her apartment building in flames.

''We're all standing out front in the dark,'' the 70-year-old woman said. ''I saw fire in the office, actual flames.''

David Barbour also walked outside in slippers after hearing the alarm, then decided to go back for some shoes. The smell of natural gas convinced the 23-year-old ballet dancer otherwise, and he got away from the building.

Robinson and Barbour were forced from their apartment complex about 3:30 a.m. Monday, along with dozens of other residents clad in pajamas and parkas, when a suspected arson fire erupted in three areas of the complex that caters to elderly residents, including the apartment of a man who died and who now is the focus of authorities' investigation.

No additional injures were reported at the complex owned by the Aspen Housing Authority.

Police Sgt. Steve Smith said the victim was a man in his 60s who had a criminal record, but he had no other details and did not release the man's name. Smith also did not know a cause of death, pending an autopsy Tuesday.

The man had received an eviction notice because of unpaid rent and damage to his apartment, according to the city of Aspen. He had to be out by Monday.

''He's the direction that we're focusing the investigation on,'' Smith said. ''It appears at this point it was a pretty cut-and-dried arson.''

Helga Solms, a 74-year-old woman who has lived in the complex since it opened about 5 years ago, said the man ''had a grudge against the city'' over his eviction.

Several residents also said the man had garnered complaints from other residents and had abused drugs.

''I know his drapes were closed for two or three weeks at a time,'' said Solms, whose apartment was above the man's.

As the flames were put out, a Roaring Fork Transportation Authority bus was brought in to give residents a heated place to sit. They later were allowed to briefly enter the buildings to use the bathroom, get dressed or gather necessities, Robinson said.

''A lot of people left their glasses, medicine,'' she said.

Many were taken to a Red Cross shelter, where they ate breakfast and lunch and waited for permission to return home.

Smith said fires were set in a basement storage area in one building and an office and the victim's apartment in the other. Authorities said they believe an accelerant was used and that natural gas lines had been tampered with. The most serious damage was in the man's apartment, although other areas had smoke and water damage.

All residents were allowed back into their apartments by 4 p.m. Monday, although cleanup work continued.

The 40-unit complex, a former motel called the Aspen Country Inn, is near a golf course and condominiums along the main highway into Aspen. It boasts a mixture of studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments and a view of all three Aspen ski areas, Buttermilk, Snowmass and Ajax mountain.

The complex gives priority to local retirees. As the residents returned, Robinson headed to her storage unit, where she kept paintings and treasured family mementos from her grandfather's travels in the 1930s.

''The family keepsakes from Egypt and China are in the storage unit,'' she said as she carried a painting back to her apartment.

''And the boxes are wet, I can feel it.'' Barbour, who lives across from the storage area, spent a portion of the afternoon on the telephone with his insurance company.

His floors and some belongings were wet, and his apartment smelled so much of smoke that he didn't plan to spend the night there. His biggest worry was getting everything settled before Wednesday, when he was scheduled to leave for a tour with the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet. But he said it could have been worse. ''As far as I'm concerned everything's OK, and most people had very little problem with it,'' he said.