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With the death of Aaron Bassler, the investigation moved from the woods where he eluded arrest for more than five weeks and turned toward the decision by three Sacramento County sheriff's deputies to fire without warning on the armed double-homicide suspect Saturday.

An autopsy confirmed that Bassler, 35, was killed by multiple gunshots on an overgrown logging road about six miles east of Fort Bragg, officials said Wednesday.

District Attorney David Eyster appeared in a Fort Bragg courtroom Wednesday and a judged granted his request to dismiss first-degree murder charges against Bassler for the slayings of a Mendocino land trust manager and a Fort Bragg forester and councilman.

"The sheriff is done with his work now that everything's over," Eyster said later. "The District Attorney gets the final say on how this went down and I take that responsibility to heart."

Eyster's office also will evaluate the exchange of gunfire that took place two days before Bassler was killed when he fired on three Alameda County Sheriff's deputies aiding in the search, he said.

Witness identification and DNA evidence linked Bassler to the two killings that took place 16 days and more than 25 miles apart, investigators said.

Matthew Coleman, 45, of Albion was clearing brush on a coastal ranch cared for by the Mendocino Land Trust near Rockport on Aug. 11 when he was shot at close range with a rifle.

Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo, 69, was patrolling timberland for marijuana gardens on Aug. 27 when he and another man were fired upon. Melo was fatally shot but his companion escaped, but not before recognizing Bassler, sheriff's officials said.

That launched the search for Bassler that brought in agencies from across California well as a Louisiana-based U.S. Marshals team. He was spotted Sept. 4 near his mother's house and on surveillance cameras, but managed to hide in the woods, stealing food and ammunition from cabins in the woods that he had roamed since his youth.

On Sept. 29, Bassler, seen through a visual scope, fired on three Alameda County sheriff's deputies in a wooded area off Northspur Road, sheriff's officials said. The deputies shot back but Bassler disappeared back into the dense forest foliage. Bassler then flanked the men and fired again, this time from behind, officials said.

The close encounter led Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman to call for more help. He asked Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones for a dozen trained deputies.

Jones asked for volunteers from his department's highly skilled special enforcement detail, and his commanders reported that the whole unit had volunteered to join the search.

A 27-person team left Thursday afternoon for the Mendocino coast, including a lieutenant commander, three canine units and 23 deputies and sergeants trained in field medicine, tracking technologies and sniper fire.

Jones described them as "folks that can take effective shots from over 500 yards."

The first group was deployed in the woods early Friday in three person teams. They spent an uneventful 24-hour shift in the forest and Saturday morning another team set out to take their places, Jones said.

Among them, three deputies in camouflage and special armor designed to withstand shots from a rifle that could penetrate most body armor set out to guard a crossroads of old logging roads, Jones said.

The strategy wasn't to seek Bassler out but to lie in wait, Jones said.

"He could travel approximately five miles an hour, which is very fast in that underbrush," Jones said. "Their plan was to place embedded teams in strategic areas and hope that Aaron Bassler came to them."

Tasked with watching three separate directions, the men hid, close together, in the dense brush.

Just after 12:20 p.m. Bassler emerged on a the haul road, wearing dark clothing, a backpack, fanny pack and holding a rifle, his finger near the trigger, Allman said.

The deputies fired their rifles. Bassler appeared to raise his weapon in response before falling to the ground, officials said. Seven bullets hit Bassler. Jones estimated his deputies fired about 11 shots in total.

Bassler died immediately from the gunshot wounds, confirmed by a Tuesday autopsy.

"They did not give Aaron Bassler an opportunity to return fire or flee into the woods," Jones said. "He was almost 60 yards away."

Though there was no "shoot-to-kill" order, the Mendocino County sheriff's tactical commanders reviewed possible scenarios ahead of the deployment and the appropriate response, Jones said.

"Before any mission there's much discussion about under what scenario they can use deadly force," Jones said. "We don't go into any mission cold."

Allman said the team's decision to fire before commanding Bassler to surrender was right, citing a 1985 U.S. Supreme Court case that began establishing federal standards for when officers are justified in using lethal force.

The case, Tennessee v. Garner, involved the shooting of a suspect fleeing from a burglary. The court outlined factors required to justify deploying lethal force, which include people involved in violent crimes and believed to pose a risk to others, said William Vizzard, professor emeritus with California State University Sacramento's criminal justice department.

"What's reasonable and prudent under the circumstances when an individual demonstrates they're not going to submit, they're armed and they have the immediate capacity to inflict deadly harm on others?" Vizzard said. "The whole, &‘Put your arms up and surrender' concept doesn't apply."

The District Attorney's investigation into Bassler's death is the final step in a harrowing case that caused Fort Bragg area residents to live in fear and avoid the woods close to town.

District Attorney investigators began interviewing the Alameda County sheriff's deputies within hours of the first shooting and likewise with the Sacramento team after Bassler was shot, Eyster said.

The team, led by Chief Investigator Tim Kiely, will review all evidence collected from both shooting scenes and review ballistics tests on all weapons.

Those tests also will confirm whether the weapon Bassler was holding when he was killed was the same weapon used to shoot Coleman and Melo.

The full investigation could take two months, Jones said.

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