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Authorities shoot, kill Fort Bragg slaying suspect Aaron Bassler


Aaron Bassler was shot and killed by law enforcement agents just after noon Saturday, ending a grueling 36-day hunt for the Fort Bragg man charged with ambushing and killing two men in coastal Mendocino County, authorities said.

Bassler, 35, had an assault rifle in hand, his finger near the trigger, when three members of a SWAT unit posted in the dense forest spotted him walking about 40 yards away along a timber road, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said.

The team fired. Bassler raised his weapon and they fired again, Allman said. Seven shots later, Bassler was dead, Allman said.

"I've stated many times that I wish this incident could have ended without another shot fired," Allman said. "But I fully support the manner in which this ended. No more lives are endangered by Aaron Bassler."

Bassler had been charged with the Aug. 11 shooting death of Matt-hew Coleman, 45, of Albion and the Aug. 27 slaying of Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo, 69.

Greg Melo, the son of the slain former Fort Bragg mayor and timber manager, said Saturday afternoon that he had been informed of the suspect's death by a relative in Fort Bragg.

"I heard what I needed to hear. None of our people got hurt, and the threat's neutralized," said Melo, 41, who lives in Coos Bay, Ore.

"I've got so many friends in Fort Bragg who are breathing easier. Today's a good day."

Melo said that his father had been patrolling private forest lands with another man, who has not been identified, looking for an illegal marijuana plot, when Bassler charged through the brush, shooting Melo in the chest six times.

Melo's companion fired back, then fled toward the Skunk Train, where he flagged down a maintenance rail car that took him to safety. He identified Bassler as the assailant.

Bassler later was linked by DNA evidence to the shooting death of Coleman, a Mendocino Land Trust manager whose body was found near his car on an ocean-front ranch owned by the Save the Redwoods League.

Bassler's family said the Fort Bragg native suffered from undiagnosed mental illness and his behavior had become increasingly threatening in recent years. He had been living in the forest abutting his hometown for months.

An extensive manhunt was launched in the timberland east of town immediately after Melo's death. Mendocino County sheriff's search teams were augmented by dozens of agents who arrived from agencies across California, including the U.S. Marshals Service.

Authorities had left numerous messages in the woods for Bassler with instructions about how to surrender.

But on Thursday, he opened fire on three Alameda County deputies aiding in the search. They fired back about 10times before he disappeared, deputies said.

Until then, Bassler had been spotted only one other time, on Sept. 4, when deputies saw him near his mother's house just east of Fort Bragg.

They called to him, but he slipped into the woods, pursued by a police dog that returned with what has been described variously as an article of clothing or a backpack.

A key break in the search came at about 4:30 p.m. Friday, when the owner of an auto repair shop outside Fort Bragg reported that his building had been burglarized, Allman said. The shop is about four miles east of Fort Bragg, nearly 13miles closer than the primary search area, he said.

Authorities had believed Bassler to be within a six-mile area centered on the tiny, unincorporated community of Northspur. However, the burglary indicated he had slipped, unnoticed, outside the law-enforcement perimeter.

"If the burglary hadn't been reported yesterday, I doubt we would have been in the area," where Bassler was finally spotted, Allman said.

On Saturday evening, Allman described the events from behind a podium at the Fort Bragg police station, flanked by more than two dozen members of the search team still in camouflage.

He said the door to the repair shop had been kicked in. Ammunition, food, beer, two compasses, matches and size-12 boots were missing, Allman said.

A trained bloodhound named Willow picked up Bassler's scent and led an officer to a trail leading into the woods, said his handler, Pomona Police Officer Joe Hernandez.

That prompted command staff at daybreak Saturday to dispatch a highly trained SWAT unit from the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department to land owned by Campbell Hawthorne Timber Co. east of where the break-in occurred, Allman said.

It is the same company that Melo worked for as a contractor.

Two deputies and a sergeant wearing special plates under their bulletproof vests designed to withstand fire from an assault rifle began staking out the area.

"At 12:23 p.m. the first person saw Bassler and recognized him," Allman said.

They were about a quarter-mile south of Mud Springs near Sherwood Road.

Bassler was wearing black clothing, a black fanny pack and a backpack, Allman said. His hair had grown in on his face and head. He was carrying a Norinco SKS 7.62-caliber assault rifle, he said.

"He not only was carrying this in right hand, he was completely ready to engage," Allman said. "His hand was on the handle and his right index finger was in a tactical position."

Investigators later found that Bassler had what appeared to be most of a 30-round clip loaded in the weapon, Allman said.

The deputies fired from a position about 25 feet higher than Bassler's position on the road, Allman said. The deputies said Bassler, who most likely couldn't see them through the thick brush, raised his weapon after the first shots, Allman said.

At least two men on the team fired a collective seven shots, which all struck Bassler in his upper torso, Allman said. Bassler did not fire, Allman said. The deputies and sergeant were not identified.

Bassler died immediately, Allman said, and his body was taken to Ukiah late Saturday.

Bassler's death brought to a close an exhausting and relentless search sparked by violence with unclear motives, Allman said.

"For whatever reason, Aaron Bassler used his violence against people he saw in authority," Allman said.

Word that the search was over spread quickly through Fort Bragg. The news brought a mixture of relief and a new sense of grief for the town, where many residents knew Melo, as well as Bassler, and their families.

"It's been a trying time for the community and though I was hoping it would be resolved in a different manner, I feel relief," said Mendocino County Supervisor Kendall Smith.

A passer-by told shopkeeper Jack Hendrix, who was standing outside his Main Street antique shop Time to Be, that Bassler had been located.

"Oh, so then it's over?" Hendrix said.

At a storefront a few doors down, relief was quickly replaced by sadness, said Lori Gibson, whose boyfriend stopped by her Hot Pepper Jelly Company to make sure she'd heard the news.

"Behind that is the fact that somebody's son died," said Gibson, 48.

Applause broke out among a crew of early afternoon drinkers at the Tip Top Lounge on Franklin Street when Bassler's death was announced on TV.

"It's been something unsaid; everyone was trying to go on with their lives but there's this thing ... and now there's not," said Peter Robblee, 65, of Fort Bragg.

"I do have feelings for the Bassler family, they suffered a loss today," Allman said. "But the other losses in this county was something law enforcement thought about every day."

Staff Writer Julie Johnson can be reached at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com and Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.