The slaying suspect being sought in a vast stretch of forest near Fort Bragg is leaving a trail of evidence as he seeks out shelter and food in the woods and tries to avoid capture, authorities said Friday.
Makeshift campsites and break-ins at a handful of remote cabins scattered miles apart all appear to be the work of Aaron Bassler, 35, of Fort Bragg, who is wanted in connection with two fatal shootings three weeks ago near Fort Bragg, a Mendocino County sheriff's official said.
At times the trail has appeared to be only a day or two old. And often it has had the same telltale evidence of Bassler's presence.
The similarities include the secluded places he chooses to camp, the way he's known to craft a campfire, or the items stolen from cabins.
"There's certain things that we think are unique to him," said Mendocino County Sheriff's Sgt. Greg Van Patten.
Bassler is wanted in the shooting deaths of Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo and Matthew Coleman, a land manager with the Mendocino Land Trust.
Melo, who worked as a forester, was gunned down Aug. 27 while patroling private timberlands east of town. A companion with him identfied Bassler as the gunman, and authorities since have linked him to the death of Coleman, who was shot Aug. 11 while working on an oceanfront ranch about 20 miles north of Fort Bragg.
Since Melo's death, Bassler has been seen just once, on Sept. 4, when he slipped away from deputies staked out near his mother's home off Sherwood Road about two miles east of Fort Bragg.
As the hunt for him enters its fourth week<NO1><NO>, a team of local, state and federal officers are focusing their daily foot and aerial patrols within a tighter part of the search area, which sprawls across 300 square miles, stretching from Fort Bragg east to Willits and from Westport in the north to Highway 20 in the south.
Authorities believe Bassler is traveling mostly in a 19-mile long corridor between Fort Bragg and Northspur, an west-to-east path that roughly parallels the Skunk Train tourist railroad, which runs from Fort Bragg to Willits.
Each day, search teams have pushed into deeper parts of that area. They've run across places where Bassler appears to have bedded down or cabins he may have raided for food and other items.
"Some of those (break-ins) we're unsure who's responsible," Van Patten said. "But there's no doubt he's obtaining food and supplies that way."
Authorities continue to receive five to 10 tips a day about Bassler's whereabouts. They investigate each one, Van Patten said.
He said some of the spots where Bassler appears to have visited are miles apart, suggesting he is frequently on the move, covering rugged ground in a relatively short amount of time.
Bassler's relatives have told authorities he had been living in the woods in the five months leading up to the shootings and was familiar with the territory.
Van Patten wouldn't say if officers are establishing ever tighter perimeters each day to constrict those movements.
He did say that operations extended around the clock, adding, "if we do believe he is in a specific area we'll try to keep him contained in that area."