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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.

"There needs to be a way for family members, when confronted with a severely mentally ill family member, to get some kind of help from the system," Hamburg said.

Nevada County is the only county in the state to fully implement Laura's Law. Los Angeles has a pilot program that focuses on requiring treatment following incarcerations, said Kristina Ragosta, legislative and policy counsel for the Treatment Advocacy Center, based in Virginia.

Orange County is considering implementing Laura's Law in the wake of the recent death of a mentally ill man following a violent altercation with police.

Those people targeted for forced out-patient treatment under Laura's Law must meet specific criteria that includes a history of mental illness; a history of psychiatric hospitalizations or criminal offenses; they are unlikely to survive safely in the community without supervision and have a history of non-compliance with treatment.

In Nevada County, the process starts with a referral to the Behavioral Health Department, said Michael Heggarty, head of the department.

An outreach worker then is sent to contact the prospective patient and evaluate them. In more than 75 percent of the cases, the patient — despite prior refusals — agrees to visit a mental health clinician, said Nevada County Judge Tom Anderson, who oversees the civil proceedings.

If not, they go to court and they are told to get treatment or face possible psychiatric confinement.

Eligible patients can be required to return to court periodically to ensure they are getting the outpatient treatment they need, Anderson said.

He said it's a crucial and simple way to get people help before they deteriorate to the point they are a danger to themselves or others.

James Bassler believes his son could have benefitted from such a system.

When Bassler was placed on federal probation following his conviction for the Chinese consulate incidents, he was required to get some type of medical treatment, his father said. Privacy laws excluded him from knowing exactly what that treatment entailed but he said his son, fearful of being jailed, "toed the line" and stayed out of trouble during probation, which also required that he stay with his mother.

When probation ended, he began to backslide, James Bassler said.

In the past year, Bassler became increasingly delusional and anti-social, the father said. He was arrested in February for being drunk and driving his truck into a tennis court, then fighting with Fort Bragg police officers.

During a subsequent month-long incarceration, family members sent letters asking his public defender, the judge, a county psychiatrist and sheriff's and jail authorities to have Bassler evaluated for mental illness and treated. They warned he could be a danger to the community.

Bassler said he never received a response and his son was released without any apparent treatment.

Anderson, the Nevada County judge, called Bassler's case "a glaring disappointment."

"Had Laura's Law been in effect, it very well may have prevented that continued decompensation," he said, referring to Bassler's apparent psychiatric disintegration.

Laura's Law advocates say that money is a factor cited by counties that have considered, but declined to adopt provisions of the law. The statute law requires that supervisors guarantee they won't reduce voluntary mental health services to pay for Laura's Law.

Counties needn't worry about the costs, Heggarty and Anderson said. An analysis of the 30 people referred to the Nevada County program shows it saves the county money by reducing jail and psychiatric hospital confinements. For every $1 spent, the county saves $1.81, Heggarty said. The county has saved $500,000 since implementing the law in 2008, he said. The program also is eligible for MediCal and Mental Health Services Act funding, he said.

"It's a win-win without a downside, which is why I'm always mystified why counties wouldn't be jumping all over this," Anderson said.

Jacobs, the advocate for Laura's Law, rejects the civil-rights objections, saying coercion is necessary sometimes for severely mentally ill people who don't recognize their condition.

"I can say there is nothing civil about dying on the streets with your rights on," she said.

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