The search for an armed and dangerous gunman in the rugged forest outside Fort Bragg entered its fifth day Wednesday with a multi-agency force bent on bringing the manhunt to an end.
But Mendocino Sheriff's Capt. Kurt Smallcomb said early Wednesday that authorities were hoping for a lucky break in their effort to locate a single man in miles of untamed woods.
"We need a break," Smallcomb said. "We haven't had a break."
An average of 30 deputies, officers and others have been combing the woods each day since Fort Bragg Councilman and former Mayor Jere Melo was gunned down Saturday as he and a companion looked for illicit pot grows in private forest for which he was manager.
They're following trails that look large enough to have been created by humans, and not just game; checking in at unoccupied hunting and weekend cabins to see if anyone might have sought food or shelter there; and trying to keep everyone safe from a man known to be violent, Smallcomb said.
An added concern, Smallcomb said, is the recent start of deer season, which means hunters in the trees who could put those searching at risk and could be at risk themselves.
The ground force includes sheriff's deputies, Fort Bragg police, federal marshals, FBI agents, Department of Justice officers and armed Cal Fire prevention officers. Search dogs were in use, as well, Smallcomb said.
Additional personnel are working the command post strategizing and planning the search. Others are out and about seeking intelligence elsewhere about suspect Aaron Bassler, an apparently disturbed Fort Bragg native Melo and his friend encountered that day about four miles east of town.
The friend, whose name was not released, recognized Bassler, 35, as the man who opened fire on them, firing multiple shots at Melo before the companion fired back and ran away, flagging down a ride with a follow-car to the well-known Skunk Train.
The Skunk Train resumed operations Tuesday despite the continuing search.
The National Guard also has contributed an aircraft with thermal imaging to the search, though it was not participating Wednesday.
Smallcomb said many from his department are working on overtime as the search continues and "are using the resources pretty fast here."
They also have Ukiah police officers back-filling for regular service calls because so many deputies are working on the coast.
But Bassler, who has been living in the woods for at least four months and knows the area well, establishing what appear to have been different living quarters, may have stockpiled food or be otherwise set up to stay in hiding there, Smallcomb said.
There are no indications he has tried to contact his family, who have feared his threatening behavior for some time in any case, and Smallcomb said he feels certain the family would let authorities know if Bassler made contact "just to prevent anybody else from getting hurt."
"We're trying to do the right things and get there," Smallcomb said of the overall effort to resolve the search.
He said area residents, as well as anyone who might consider hunting, be supremely cautious going forward.
"Just remind the public to remain vigilant," he said.