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.