FORT BRAGG — Sunday dawned on this former mill town along Mendocino County's rugged coast with a palpable sense of peace for the first time since the search for a man suspected of killing two people began more than five weeks ago.
Aaron Bassler, 35, was shot dead in the dense woods about four miles east of town Saturday by a SWAT team from Sacramento County.
The fatal bullets brought to a close a search that had transformed the vast woodlands abutting town into the ominous staging ground of a reportedly homicidal man.
"It was a long month," said Marty Johnson, 66, master of the Fort Bragg Grange.
Sunday morning, bowls of blackberry syrup made with fruit harvested from the nearby woods were passed among people seated in folding chairs around tables at the monthly Grange breakfast. More than 300 people, many whose families have called the Fort Bragg area home for generations, gathered north of town in the white building trimmed in green and surrounded by pines along scenic Highway 1.
Conversations turned to the unease that has for 36 days hung over the town of about 7,200 people, many in homes abutting the forest search area that sprawled east from the coast.
While saddened that the search for Bassler ended with another North Coast man dead, few at the Grange hall questioned the tactics used by the Sacramento County sheriff's SWAT team in Bassler's final moments.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman reached Sunday said the team had few options when Bassler was spotted walking down a timber road with the semiautomatic weapon he'd presumably used in both killings at the ready.
"Let's say he'd been walking down the road with the gun slung over his back or we had come upon him when he was sleeping, those are situations when we'd be able to announce who we were without him answering back with gunfire," Allman said.
"Honestly, I wasn't willing to risk the lives of these men," Allman said. "If he'd shown any signs of surrendering peacefully we could have used other tactics, but he didn't."
Three SWAT team members fired seven shots and Bassler was hit in the upper torso. He died on the overgrown timber road, just off of Sherwood Road about two miles away from his mother's home.
The threat of Bassler had felt very real to those living in Fort Bragg during the monthlong manhunt. Many kept their doors and windows locked for the first time. And hunters stayed out of the woods. Security systems and automatic lights were installed. And residents said they kept weapons close by.
"Most people wish it didn't end the way that it did," said Dusty Dillon, 64, of Noyo Harbor, who was collecting tickets near the front door of Sunday's breakfast. "And wish it hadn't started the way it did," added his fellow ticket collector, Mike Hopper, 48, a Fort Bragg resident who runs Hopper Dairy.
The search began Aug. 27 when Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo was gunned down on private timberland about four miles east of town. A companion who was with Melo and escaped under fire told authorities the shooter was Bassler, a man he apparently knew, sheriff's officials said.
With Bassler identified, authorities launched a search that few could have guessed would involve search teams from across California, with help from a U.S. Marshall's unit based in Louisiana. Nor would they have guessed that Melo's killer was a longtime resident who would soon be linked to the shooting death of another forest worker that had occurred 16 days before.