FORT BRAGG, Calif. (AP) — A man suspected in the fatal shootings of a Fort Bragg city councilman and a county land trust official was shot and killed Saturday after a massive monthlong manhunt in the redwood forests of Northern California.
Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman said Aaron Bassler was shot seven times some 6 miles east of Fort Bragg after he was sniffed out in the forest by a bloodhound tracking a nearby burglary. Three members of the Sacramento County's SWAT team were in the trees about 40 yards from Bassler when he came toward them on a timber trail.
Allman initially said Bassler raised his gun before the deputies fired; he later said the fugitive raised his rifle as he was falling from the gunfire. There had been no verbal exchange, but the sheriff said the deputies saw Bassler walking with his finger poised near the trigger before they fired.
"I wish that this incident could have ended without another shot being fired," Allman said. But, he added, "I fully support the manner in which this ended. There will be no more lives which will be endangered by Aaron Bassler."
The sheriff said Bassler's rifle was loaded with some 30 rounds, its safety was off. He noted that Bassler had already killed two people with the same weapon and had shot at three sheriff's deputies Thursday.
"Any confrontation or contact with law enforcement agents was going to be lethal and deadly," Allman said, adding that law permits officers to shoot at a suspected felon under such circumstances.
Bassler, 35, had been sought since Aug. 27 when Councilman Jere Melo, who was also a security consultant for a lumber company, and a co-worker confronted him while investigating reports of an illegal marijuana farm outside of town.
Police said Bassler was cultivating some 400 poppy plants and was holed up in a makeshift bunker when he fired on the 69-year-old Melo and a co-worker who escaped and called for help.
The sheriff said they had DNA linking Bassler in the fatal shooting of Matthew Coleman of the Mendocino County Land Trust. The former Fish and Game Department employee was found dead next to his car on Aug. 11 up the coast from Fort Bragg.
Dozens of local, state and federal authorities scoured the forests near Fort Bragg in one of the area's largest manhunts in decades, but Bassler eluded them for more than a month. He exchanged gunfire with Alameda County deputies Thursday, when authorities noticed he was dressed in black and had a high-powered rifle that was seen in a surveillance photo taken last week. It was believed to be the same weapon he is accused of using to kill Melo on Aug. 27 and the same one he was carrying Saturday.
A break in the search came Friday when the owner of a shop told authorities he found the door kicked in and that ammunition, beer, food, two compasses and some boots had been stolen. Willow, a bloodhound from the Pomona Police Department, and his handler, Pomona Police Officer Joe Hernandez, began tracking the burglar's scent. This led the command team to change course and get in place for Bassler.
The 7,000 residents of Fort Bragg had been on edge while the manhunt enveloped the coastal community about three hours north of San Francisco. Both Melo and Coleman had been well regarded locally for their love of the land and volunteer community work.
"Relief," said Elizabeth McNeill, a sales clerk at the Sears appliance store in downtown Fort Bragg. "It's a sad situation, but now people can relax. I just hope Jere's wife can get some closure."
Posters seeking his capture and offering a $30,000 reward hung in the windows of most shops in this fishing and lumber town, where authorities told residents to stay out of their vacation cabins until Bassler was arrested.
Chriss Zaida, who owns a clothing store across from the coffeehouse, heard whooping in the streets when news of Bassler's death spread through town. "But I'm not high-fiving people," she said. "I have the utmost sympathy for his victims, but also for the law enforcement agents who had to do what they had to do. And I can't imagine what his family is going through."
James Bassler, Aaron Bassler's father, has said his son had undiagnosed mental illness after past arrests for DUI and for throwing red military stars and notes over the fence of the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. James Bassler told The Associated Press in a recent interview that he had called on Mendocino County officials to help his son, and hoped the Board of Supervisors would pass a law that allows for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment for those who refuse treatment or deny they are mentally ill.
Officials had been confounded by Aaron Bassler's skills and ability to elude them in the 400-square-mile search perimeter. Authorities believe that during his time at large, he broke into a half-dozen cabins in the woods to restock his food supplies.
"To my knowledge, he's never had any training, but he's clearly got survival skills and is using his self-proclaimed militancy skills," Sgt. Chad Lewis with the Sacramento County Sheriff's SWAT team said Saturday morning, just hours before the same team would kill Bassler. "He's very savvy in the woods; he's proven to be very adept."