FORT BRAGG — Three deputies aiding in a search through the thick and untamed forest east of Fort Bragg came under fire just before noon Thursday by a man they identified as Aaron Bassler, the suspect sought by deputies in two North Coast shooting deaths.
The men saw Bassler, 35, who fired from about 100 meters away and disappeared as they shot back, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said at an evening news conference.
The men were fired upon again moments later by an unseen shooter, presumably Bassler, who they believed was trying to flank them, Allman said. They shot back, but the man did not appear or shoot again, he said.
"We are somewhat hampered in the immediate search not only because of the dense brush, also because he's shooting at them with a rifle," Allman said.
The men fired 10 shots at Bassler, but he slipped back into the forest where he's been hiding since Aug. 27, when a gunman used a similar flanking technique to shoot and kill Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo, Allman said.
None of the deputies was injured. It wasn't clear whether Bassler was struck, he said.
"We were very lucky that this situation was as it was and no one was injured," Allman said.
The shooting was the second encounter with Bassler, who has remained at large since he was identified as a suspect in Melo's killing. Bassler is also suspected in the shooting death of Albion resident Matthew Coleman, who was found dead Aug. 11 on a ranch north of Westport.
Following the exchange of gunfire Thursday, a half-dozen law enforcement officers stood guard along Highway 20, 10miles west of Willits, where the road overlooks the vast swath of forest that has been the focus of the search for Bassler.
An ambulance stood by the entrance to Irmulco Road on Highway 20, six miles west of Willits, which winds down into the Noyo River drainage and Bassler's home territory.
Eight miles down the dirt road, past Irmulco, a one-time train stop, a dozen officers waited at a command post at Northspur, along what is now the Skunk Train line. Northspur is now the turnaround stop for the Skunk Train and is not far from where Thursday's gunfire took place.
The deputies who encountered the shooter are a team from the Alameda County Sheriff's Office's special response team, similar to a SWAT unit, led by a sergeant with years of experience, said Alameda County Sheriff's Capt. David Brady at Thursday's news conference in Fort Bragg. The team, two deputies and a sergeant, are "highly trained" and had been aiding in the search for Bassler since Sunday, Brady said.
A replacement unit was dispatched to the area and the men were still undergoing interviews about the encounter late Thursday, he said.
"They're doing fine at this point," Brady said.
Their identities were not released because the investigation of the shooting is ongoing, Allman said.
Dog teams, aircraft and additional ground teams were sent to the area following the 11:50a.m. encounter.
The men spotted Bassler through scopes and noted that he appeared to be wearing black clothing, Allman said.
Allman said that Bassler appeared to be wearing camouflage and light clothing in surveillance images caught of him during a weekend break-in at a vacation cabin near Northspur.