Two Mendocino County slayings and a grueling five-week manhunt that ended with the shooting death of murder suspect Aaron Bassler all might have been avoided had he received mental health care, say mental health advocates.
"I believe that, had he been able to get the help his family was pleading for, the deaths would not have happened, said Comptche resident Sonya Nesch, author of "Advocating for Someone with a Mental Illness" and a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Bassler, 35, had been a target of an intensive 36-day search in the rugged terrain west of Fort Bragg. He was was killed Saturday when three Sacramento Sheriff's deputies opened fire on him in the woods. He was a fugitive charged with the fatal shootings of Jere Mello, 69, of Fort Bragg and Donald Coleman, 45, of Albion. No motive for the killings has been disclosed.
Nesch said she tried to help Bassler's family get assistance for him and now is advocating for county supervisors to adopt the provisions of California's "Laura's Law," which may have made getting that treatment easier. Fort Bragg officials have made a similar request.
The law, adopted by the Legislature in 2002, allows counties to set up programs that in certain situations can force people with psychiatric problems to undergo outpatient treatment. Such programs have drawn criticism from some civil rights groups that view it as a potential infringement on civil rights.
Mendocino County supervisors have directed their staff to evaluate the law and report back. No date has been set.
Bassler's mental health had been on the decline since he was 18 or 19, said his father, James Bassler. His behavior — including numerous arrests and an obsession with space aliens — is consistent with schizophrenia, said representatives of the Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit group that pushes for mental health treatment.
In early 2009, Bassler was arrested in San Francisco for tossing a fake bomb and drawings of aliens over the fence of the Chinese consulate.
Bassler's family said they'd tried to get him into treatment but he refused, which is not unusual, advocates say.
"It's because of their illness they can't recognize they need help," said Carla Jacobs, a member of the Advocacy Center and a sponsor of Laura's Law.
Jacobs understands first hand the difficulty in obtaining treatment for an uncooperative family member. Her sister-in-law killed her mother-in-law following unsuccessful attempts to obtain mental health treatment for the schizophrenic woman.
"Like the Basslers, we could not get treatment for her until it was too late," Jacobs said.
Laura's Law is aimed at intervening before there is a dangerous crisis. It allows for mentally ill people who meet certain criteria to be coerced into outpatient treatment through civil court proceedings. But individual counties first must formally endorse the law and accept its restrictions. The legislation is named for a young woman, Laura Wilcox, who, along with two others, was killed by a mentally ill man in Nevada County in 2001. Laura's law was modeled after New York's Kendra's Law.
"There's a lot of community interest into looking into whether or not it would have made any difference in Aaron Bassler's case," said Supervisor John McCowen.
The issue will be sent to interested parties for input before it's presented to the board, said Supervisor Dan Hamburg. He said he needs more information but, at first glance, it appears to be a good idea.