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Manhunt continues after shots exchanged in search for Aaron Bassler


FORT BRAGG — The man wanted in the shooting deaths of two North Coast residents was believed to be within a perimeter of armed and camouflaged agents encircling a swath of dense forest between Fort Bragg and Willits, Mendocino County Sheriff's Office officials said Friday.

The elusive Aaron Bassler remained at large Friday night, more than 24 hours after deputies said he fired on them in two separate encounters. No deputies were injured and a team of investigators who scoured the shooting site Friday afternoon did not find any evidence that Bassler had been hit.

Dozens of law enforcement officers were to remain stationed in the woods overnight, much as they have been during the past month. And the teams of officers who have come here from throughout the state are hoping they have Bassler contained.

"It's really impossible to get an exact perimeter because of the vast area. But we're doing our best," Sgt. Jim Van Hagen, SWAT commander for the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office, said.

This week's violent encounters have brought a heightened sense of anticipation here in the woods between Fort Bragg and Willits and increased doubts that Bassler can be taken alive.

"He's bringing the fight to us," said Sgt. Greg Van Patten, who runs the Mendocino County sheriff's investigations unit.

"I hate to say it but Aaron Bassler has control. He's dictating where this goes," Van Patten said.

Van Patten and investigators from the sheriff's and district attorney's offices suited up in camouflage, bullet proof vests and bug spray early Friday in a traffic pullout along Highway 20 as they waited for additional units to join them.

Van Patten's team was heading into the woods to search the site of Thursday's shooting for evidence of the encounter, including bullet casings and signs of whether Bassler was hit by the returned gunfire.

But with a suspect in the woods known to ambush civilians as well as law enforcement, processing the scene required an additional team of about 30 agents to secure and guard the area so that detectives could collect evidence and search for clues without fear of being shot, Van Patten said.

"It's dangerous but we have to get in before we lose any evidence," Van Patten said.

"It's no secret that Aaron Bassler has the advantage here," he said.

Bassler is suspected of killing Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo Aug. 27, less than two weeks after the shooting death of Albion resident Matthew Coleman. It's launched a massive response that has dominated life for more than a month in the coastal community of Fort Bragg.

Melo's son, Greg Melo, reached by phone in Coos Bay, Ore. Friday, said he believed authorities would successfully complete the search for Bassler within a few days.

But he said he doubted it would end without bloodshed.

"The first language he decided to speak to them was gunfire, and they spoke his language right back," Melo said of Thursday's exchange of gunfire near Northspur. He then added, "And that's appropriate."

While not expressing a preference for how the search ends, Melo, 41, said it would be difficult to endure a trial and impossible to tune it out.

"My dad didn't get a trial," Melo said. "He's dead. I think there probably would be a certain form of justice if the same thing happened to Mr. Bassler that had happened to my dad."

Thursday's shooting took place about a quarter mile northeast of an area along Northspur Road where several vacation cabins and residences have been vandalized, Van Patten said.

Mendocino County deputies were joined by a team from the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office in the area Friday. Their main job: protect the violent crimes detectives as they combed the thick woods for evidence.

Bassler, a Fort Bragg native, has proved himself a savvy woodsman who knows where to hide and gather food, enough to elude searchers for the past 35 days in the forest.

He's also shown no inclination to surrender.

Law enforcement teams have left notes for Bassler on food and other items in locations where he's believed to be circling that instruct him how to peacefully surrender.

They even brought Bassler's father, James Bassler, into the forest with a bullhorn. The elder Bassler traveled to the area on the Skunk Train and stopped at several locations and called for his son to surrender.

"Unfortunately, it didn't work," Van Patten said.

Evidence, including fingerprints and surveillance images, have this week helped law enforcement gain a better sense of Bassler's behavior over the past month.

He's shown that he's unafraid to return to the same areas, Van Patten said. In particular, he's believed to keep returning to an area of dense woods near Northspur Road with a smattering of vacation cabins and some full-time residences, he said.

This places the main focus of the search in a swath of forest about six miles east-to-west in the unincorporated community of Northspur.

"What we've learned thus far is that the suspect does like to flank us," Van Patten said.

The technique is often used in military strategy to get behind the target and gain advantage, he said.

That was the method used Aug. 27 when a shooter fired upon Melo and another man, said Mendocino County Sheriff's Det. Bryan Arrington, the lead investigator in Melo's death.

The shooter, identified as Bassler by the man with Melo, then flanked the men and fired again, he said.

"We're not dealing with a suspect who possibly did something and may turn himself in," Arrington said. "This is someone who isn't afraid of firing on law enforcement and is comfortable here. This is his backyard."