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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.

Matthew Coleman, 45, a Mendocino County Land Trust land manger from Albion was killed Aug. 11 near his vehicle on a ranch about a mile off Highway 1 near Rockport, sheriff's officials said.

Bassler "was totally off our radar," until he became the prime suspect in Melo's death, said Detective Andrew Porter, the lead investigator in Coleman's killing.

Clues pointed to Bassler, who was soon linked to the death by DNA evidence, officials said. Mendocino County District Attorney prosecutors on Sept. 2 charged Bassler with the first-degree murders of Coleman and Melo, in addition to special circumstances that would have made him eligible for the death penalty.

On Sunday, a day after Bassler was killed, a motive in the shootings of Coleman and Melo remained unclear. Bassler's family had said the 35-year-old Fort Bragg native suffered from undiagnosed mental illness. His criminal record involved mostly nonviolent offenses such as theft.

Allman said Bassler appeared to have targeted authority figures: Coleman and Melo in their capacities as land managers in addition to law enforcement.

On Thursday, Bassler fired on law enforcement agents without warning in a wooded area near the unincorporated community of Northspur. The men returned fire, however Bassler slipped back into the woods.

Three weeks before Bassler was killed, amid the effort to apprehend him, Bassler encountered a group of transient men who live in the woods, Allman said.

"He didn't treat them in a threatening manner, he didn't make demands," Allman said.

That Bassler fired on law enforcement without warning, as he had ambushed Coleman and Melo was key in determining how to approach the search.

"As sheriff, I certainly wasn't going to put conditions on the men who were going out into woods to endanger their lives," Allman said.

The names of the men involved in Bassler's death, two deputies and a sergeant, weren't released.

At the Grange hall on Sunday, Kim Evans fed chunks of hash browns to her granddaughter, 9-month-old Lillian Evans. Evans said the opportunity to help Bassler had passed long before he shot and killed Coleman and Melo.

"It was very apparent that he wasn't reformable," said Evans, 46, who lives off Sherwood Road near the area of woods where Bassler was shot.

Grange Master Johnson, who runs a marriage and family therapy practice in Fort Bragg, said many of her conversations with clients had been focused on the tragic deaths of Coleman and Melo, "really loved members of our community."

"Both deaths were out of the blue," Johnson said. "These men left in the morning with no sense that they were going to die in such a vicious manner."

Johnson, in a green apron, stopped by the ticket booth to take a break from serving food.

Across the room, Jan Kessner, 67, played a boogie on her accordion.

Conversations vacillated between Bassler and the routine: how to make vinegar, or about the foggy summer already moving toward a rainy winter without the sunny days typical for the coast in autumn.

"I was so afraid he'd get into town," Kessner said.

Behind a table of pies, cookies and hats for sale to support a Grange college scholarship fund, Karen DelCarlo, 62, of Fort Bragg and Pat Burns, 79, of Westport were nearly giddy as the tension that hung over the town dissipated.

"You can put your life back together," said Burns, who said she started locking the doors and windows during her afternoon nap.

"I think we're all a little giddy with relief," DelCarlo said.

Don Miller, 60, of Fort Bragg had been camping near Rockport at the time when Coleman was killed, he would later learn. Miller, who retired from the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office about four years ago, knew many of the men involved in the search, and was relieved none of his colleagues were harmed in the search, he said.

"People have been focused on this all up and down the coast," Miller said. "They felt it all the way down to Gualala."

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