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FORT BRAGG — The two men parked as close as they could to a trail leading into the towering coastal redwoods on private timberland about four miles east of Fort Bragg.

Jere Melo, who embodied the town's life as a forester and 16-year councilman, joined with local resident Ian Chaney and set out on a Saturday in late August to find a man who had cleared the dense brush to build a small-time illicit drug camp.

Melo and Chaney, who lives on family land abutting the timber property, followed a trail into a clearing and found themselves among hundreds of scraggly opium poppies in plastic pots. More flowers grew along a terraced hillside.

Melo, who was unarmed, and Chaney, who was carrying a 9 mm handgun, looked up the hill and saw logs piled into a makeshift bunker 3 to 4 feet high.

"FBI," yelled a voice from higher ground.

The man they were looking for, 35-year-old Aaron Bassler, jumped out of the bunker and fired a semi-automatic rifle.

Chaney returned fire and ran. He saw Melo fall to the ground. He heard bullets hitting the trees.

Chaney raced toward the Skunk Train tracks and flagged down a maintenance car following the train filled with tourists on its morning run. He was taken to safety and to get help.

Melo, 69, was shot three times and is believed to have died instantly in the woods where he worked for five decades. Heavily armed law enforcement officers guarded his body overnight.

Bassler disappeared into the woods that carpet the rugged hills from Fort Bragg on the Mendocino Coast inland to Willits, marking the beginning of what would be a tense, unprecedented 36-day manhunt.

Bassler would soon be connected to a second shooting death — that of land manager Matthew Coleman.

Each day, the trail led further into the troubled mind of Bassler, who carved inscrutable symbols into trees or laid them out in pebbles on the ground. He carried stacks of playing cards, each card the eight of spades. And he carried aluminum foil pipes, the crucial evidence that would link him to Coleman's murder.

How the confusing clues helped solve a murder, what Melo's companion saw and heard and the extent of a manhunt that cost more than a quarter-million dollars for Mendocino County all unfolded in the weeks after Bassler's death. They were revealed in dozens of interviews with law enforcement officers involved in the search, in conversations with Bassler's family and others close to the case and in newly disclosed documents.

And they bring fresh insight to a chase that ended on a Saturday morning, exactly five weeks after Melo's slaying, with Bassler dead on a logging road on Oct. 1, hit by seven bullets fired by snipers from the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department.

For grieving families and town residents who knew not only the victims, but also Bassler, the question of why this happened may never bring a satisfactory answer.

"There are many pieces of this puzzle that will never be understood," said Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, a 25-year veteran of the department who was elected five years ago.

With the weight lifted of searching for an armed and dangerous man who brought fear to an entire community, Allman spoke at length about the frustrations and breakthroughs of the investigation.

Documents in support of a search warrant put into focus what drove Melo and Chaney to venture into the woods to find Bassler and his poppy garden.

Bassler's motive to kill, perhaps driven by undiagnosed mental illness, appears linked to a longheld disdain for people in authority.

And his father says a childhood war fantasy held by his son, rather than fading with age, festered into an adult delusion involving interplanetary warfare.

"It all came true," said his father, James Bassler of Fort Bragg. "He had an army looking for him."

Melo never carried weapon

Melo, who was working as a security officer with Campbell Timberland Management, had spent the week before he was killed patrolling company land with a sheriff's deputy in search of marijuana gardens.

"Jere Melo had talked to me about Aaron Bassler before," said Allman, who had known Melo for years. "He told me that there were possibly poppies on the property."

Melo never carried a weapon when he ventured into the woods, despite the dangers of mountain lions, bears and marijuana growers.

On Aug. 27, Melo drove to the property with Chaney, a 31-year-old tiling contractor who lives with his family along Sherwood Road on land that abuts the Campbell property.

Chaney had in the past run "Bassler off the property where the shooting occurred," he told authorities, according to an affidavit in support of a search warrant connected to the case. Chaney, whose identity was not made public while Bassler was at large, declined to comment on the shootings or search.

The men parked and hiked into the woods where the Noyo River takes a sharp northward bend.

Passengers and staff on the nearby Skunk Train reported hearing the "bap-bap-bap-bap" of gunfire at about 11:20 a.m. Chaney flagged down a maintenance railcar that followed the train.

About 50 miles southeast in Ukiah, Sheriff Allman received a text message on his cellphone from a sheriff's captain that said there was a shooting near Fort Bragg.

"My very first thought was, &‘I hope Jere's OK,'" Allman said.

At a shop in Fort Bragg, James Bassler, a commercial fisherman, heard sirens from a stream of patrol cars heading in all directions.

"I remember stepping outside and watching the cop cars go by," the elder Bassler said.

He had grown wary of his son's anti-social behavior and brewing rage. So much so that he slept with a loaded weapon nearby.

His gut sank when he heard sirens.

"I just thought ... Aaron," he said.

He called a friend with a police radio scanner and the two listened to try to learn what happened.

A father's warning

Within days of Melo's killing, Bassler's father called the Sheriff's Office and told officials that his son was "mentally ill, and they have to treat him that way," he said.

"Though he's unpredictable in the moment, he's very predictable. He wasn't heading out of the area," James Bassler said.

Detectives also realized Bassler most likely hadn't fled the area and remained in the woods he explored as a child and lived in as an adult.

Teams of armed agents in face paint and camouflage were dispatched into the woods in waves. Bassler could be anywhere within 400 square miles.

Law enforcement teams from across California volunteered to join the search. The U.S. Marshals Service dispatched a special operations group trained in missions ranging from handling high-risk prisoners in Afghanistan to tracking dangerous fugitives in rural areas of the United States.

Despite dozens of searchers on the ground with night vision goggles and aircraft with heat-sensing equipment, they had nary a whisper of Bassler's whereabouts for more than a week.

They were holding a perimeter, keeping watch, waiting for him to step into view.

The first break came Sept. 4, nine days after Melo was killed.

A Humboldt County sheriff's deputy was watching over Bassler's mother's home, a single-story house among fruit trees and outbuildings set back from Sherwood Road.

About 8 a.m., the deputy saw Bassler's head and shoulders appear about 10 feet away beyond a dense thicket of brush.

The deputy tried to pursue him through the thicket and set loose a police dog named Dutch, "but he disappeared," said Allman. The deputy "couldn't even hear the brush crackling."

Dutch returned with a backpack but not Bassler. Detectives didn't know if their suspect had been bit or injured or simply got away. But the backpack provided key evidence that placed him at Coleman's killing. An aluminum-foil pipe contained marijuana and Bassler's DNA, the first tangible evidence linking him to Coleman's killing.

The items also added a deeper layer of mystery to Bassler's state of mind.

Bassler carried toiletries, a plastic bag with a stack of cards, all the eight of spades, and a baggie with blood on it, according to the affidavit deputies filed in support of a search warrant they executed at Bassler's mother's house.

After the sighting, deputies discovered the first symbol: two lines crossed in a plus sign within an eight-inch circle.

The symbol was carved into trees near burgled cabins or laid out with pebbles on the ground in areas of the woods agents believed Bassler was hiding. Authorities researched meanings and found many possibilities. Was it cross-hairs viewed in a rifle scope? Was Bassler telling them he was watching them? Was it a hieroglyphic symbol for Earth? Did the circle represent a Native American medicine wheel and indicate he was injured?

"Why is he leaving this for us? Was he trying to communicate with us?" Allman said.

Investigators were stumped.

Killing was a mystery

In the two weeks prior to Melo's killing, detectives had no idea who had shot Coleman on a remote coastal ranch near Rockport, about 25 miles north of Fort Bragg.

Coleman, 45, had been clearing brush Aug. 11 on land maintained by the Mendocino Land Trust. He was passionate about ridding coastal habitat of invasive species.

The driver's side door to his vehicle was ajar when his body was found. He was about a mile from an ocean cliff and the people who found him thought he'd been mauled by a bear.

"Detectives immediately saw the signs of violence," Allman said.

Bassler shot Coleman twice from at least 30 feet away with a high-caliber rifle. Two more shots hit his vehicle.

"There was no indication of anything but a calculated murder," Allman said. "But we didn't have a motive. We didn't have a suspect. We didn't have a witness."

Investigators searched the area and did not find any marijuana plants, often a cause for violence. But they did find an aluminum-foil pipe.

"Within 72 hours it was a who-done-it," Allman said. "Where do we go?"

Bassler's father over time would grow to suspect his son had been involved in Coleman's death. Bassler's mother had dropped off her son in the Rockport area around Aug. 11, he said.

He called sheriff's officials after Melo was killed, and at that point told them he believed his son might be responsible for Coleman's death.

Authorities charged Bassler with Coleman's killing six days after Melo's death. The pipes put Bassler at Coleman's shooting.

His father later guessed his son's violence was driven by a paranoia that other men would force him to leave the area.

"It wasn't Aaron's property but in his mind he had nowhere else to go," James Bassler said. "If anyone criticized him in any way or said, &‘You can't do that,' he was a bear trap, ready to go off."

Experts analyze behavior

Days would go by without any sign of Bassler. Then break-ins and a flurry of sightings changed that in the next weeks.

By Sept. 14, a reward fund was boosted to $30,000 through donations from Coleman's employer, Mendocino Land Trust, as well as Save the Redwoods, the U.S. Marshals Service and private donors.

Several men, who, like Bassler, lived in the woods, told authorities they smoked a joint with Bassler about three weeks into the search. A logging crew may have seen him from afar.

Detectives funneled Bassler's life history, criminal record and the curious clues about his habits and belongings to the U.S. Marshall's Service behavior experts.

They analyzed his behavior, including a 2009 incident when Bassler threw a fake bomb and drawings of aliens over the fence of the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. Federal authorities arrested him, and he was placed on probation and required to meet with a counselor.

The unit sought to anticipate his moves, said chief psychologist Dr. Michael Bourke.

"We're analyzing behavior and we make predictions and get a sense of what makes someone tick," Bourke said.

His team crafted a letter encouraging Bassler to surrender. Searchers left the message in the woods on food and areas where he might pass.

Mendocino County sheriff's commanders increased the number of agents from an average of 20 to 40 men.

CHP officers put extra patrols along Highway 20, the main east-west route from Willits and the Highway 101 corridor to Fort Bragg.

Dozens of deputies and dog teams arrived from Sonoma, Napa, Lake, Humboldt, Alameda, Placerville and other counties. Police departments sent SWAT and dog units. They filled the rooms of the Seabird Lodge across Franklin Street from the sheriff's Fort Bragg substation.

Mendocino County sheriff's commanders kept revolving shifts of men in the woods. Each evening, they'd pore over maps and make a plan for the next day.

Officers hid in thick brush and waited for hours within sight of trails and haul roads for Bassler to step into view.

Many saw mountain lions. But no Bassler.

Then the burglaries began.

About two days after the deputy saw Bassler near his mother's house, the owner of a remote cabin reported the structure had been burglarized.

Detectives believe Bassler committed a half-dozen burglaries and found similar circumstances. Bassler would kick open the doors of cabins secured with padlocks and would take items like food, beer, ammunition and guns.

Trove of mysterious clues

Bassler had few possessions, but he left behind a trove of mysterious clues to his personality long before he would kill two men.

He carved symbols into the walls of his late grandmother's house across from his father's property, where he lived before it burned in an unexplained fire. He scribbled sketches and thoughts in notebooks. A few years ago, his father read through the sketchbook. Bassler had drawn a map of Easter Island and a reptile alien named Ron he expected to meet someday.

"He wasn't with an adult mind or purpose," the elder Bassler said.

After Aaron Bassler was arrested following the Chinese consulate fake-bomb incident, his father found two red stars buried in pine needles in a back corner of his wooded property on the outskirts of Fort Bragg. They appeared cut out of plastic placemats and were painted red. One side was covered with double-sided tape, now caked with pine needles and dirt.

"I don't know, but I think he stuck them to himself," James Bassler said, holding the stars to his chest.

Because of privacy laws, James Bassler didn't know if his son was diagnosed with a mental illness as an adult. He sent letters asking jail staff and a public defender to request a psychiatric evaluation, but no officials have admitted receiving the letters. He knew his son as a happy child who changed markedly around age 18 or 19. Bassler couldn't hold down a job. He grew marijuana in the woods.

In February, Bassler crashed his vehicle into a Fort Bragg tennis court and confronted police officers when they arrived at the scene, sparking "a genuine fight," Allman said.

"People told us that when he was driving by law enforcement, he'd yell, &‘F-U,' and flip them off," Allman said. "I'm sure a lot of people want to do that, but it's rare that people want to draw cops' attention to themselves."

During the search, agents took Bassler's father on a Skunk Train car to the woods with a bullhorn.

"I just called for him like I would when he was a kid," his father said. "I said his mother and I are worried about you. Then I had to add, leave the gun and come out.'"

They found no sign of his son.

Keeping ahead of searchers

Bassler proved to be a skillful survivalist.

Agents didn't find tents or blankets, but they did find dirt hollowed out around roots where they think Bassler slept. And they discovered flashlights he left behind.

Bassler always appeared to be a day or two ahead of officers.

"How can a person be so smart, lucky and aggressive?" Allman said.

Bassler's weakness was food. He needed to maintain enough energy to travel quickly through thick brush. He ate canned food found in cabins, and the forest offered edible berries and bugs.

Bassler was spotted by one of the surveillance cameras posted in the woods by agents about 17 days into the search.

"We literally spent hours, hours, analyzing that photograph," Allman said.

Bassler was seen reaching up to a window with one hand, while his right hand held his rifle. A flashlight appears to be taped to the weapons muzzle. His pants appear split in the seat.

"It told us he wasn't injured because he was using his arms. It told us that he was still armed. It told us he was alive and well," Allman said.

Officials released the photo to the public on Sept. 26, about 10 days after it was taken.

Two days later, they confirmed fingerprints placed Bassler at a cabin break-in on Northspur Road north of the train depot where Skunk Train passengers stop for barbecue lunch.

Many residents in the remote community live down winding, dirt roads in homes hidden among redwood groves.

Anna Hopkins, 25, usually bikes down a red-dirt road to the Northspur depot to serve lunch to people from the train.

Bassler broke into the cabin about a quarter-mile east of her home. Her family began locking their doors for the first time, an unfamiliar habit that led her to repeatedly lock herself out of her house. Her husband showed her how to lock and load his gun.

"The police said, &‘if you see him, don't hesitate,'" Hopkins said.

On Sept. 29, deputies had been staking out a six-mile area of the forest centered around Northspur Road, a dirt road that wends a path deep into the forest communities around the Northspur depot.

Without warning, Bassler opened fire on them just before noon.

They saw him through a scope wearing dark clothing about 100 yards away. They fired back 10 shots, but he slipped back into the woods.

Bassler fired again from a new position and wasn't seen again that day. None of the deputies were hit. At the time, they didn't know if Bassler had been wounded.

"Looking back, we could have easily lost a law enforcement officer," Allman said.

At that point, it became clear that Bassler could kill again and was unlikely to surrender.

Allman called around the state for more help and received a swift response from the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department.

The entire tactical unit volunteered — 23 men, including four trained snipers, along with police dogs, three handlers and a sergeant.

Mendocino County sheriff's command staff believed Bassler was within an approximate six-mile corridor centered near Northspur.

Unbeknownst to them, Bassler had slipped through their perimeter and made a 14-mile trek to the outskirts of Fort Bragg.

Two miles east of Bassler's mother's house, a man who runs an automotive shop in a garage outside town, alerted authorities at about 4:30 p.m. Sept. 30 that his garage had been burglarized.

Bassler had kicked in the door. He took food and a pair of size-12 boots.

It would be the decisive clue in leading deputies to Bassler.

The burglary told detectives Bassler was moving fast and likely had been uninjured in the exchange of gunfire with Alameda County deputies.

"It told us that we needed to re-evaluate our position," Allman said.

Searchers had focused on the woods near Northspur, where cabins were burglarized and Bassler fired on the Alameda County deputies.

Then, dogs picked up Bassler's scent at the garage break-in, leading teams to refocus on private timberland just east of Fort Bragg, a few miles from where Melo was shot.

Bloodhounds from Riverside County, Placerville and Pomona took up Bassler's scent, including a droopy-eared hound named Willow.

The searchers painted their faces green and wore special armor designed to withstand fire from a rifle.

"Every day we leave, we're worried someone will get killed," Sacramento County Sheriff Deputy Jeff Bacoch said of the stress facing the officers and deputies.

Many men had the sense that they'd have one chance to survive in an encounter with Bassler.

"If you miss, you won't get to shoot again," Bacoch said.

On Oct. 1, a team of three Sacramento deputies hid in the brush near a logging road, about six miles east of Fort Bragg off Sherwood Road. They had relieved another crew and were hunkered in the brush on a bank above a lumber road, waiting for Bassler to come to them.

Just after noon, Bassler appeared on the hard-packed logging road about 25 feet below the trio of deputies. He was carrying a Russian-made, Norinco SKS 7.62-caliber assault rifle with the distinctive curved banana clip.

His finger was posed in a "tactical position," Allman said.

Without warning, the deputies fired Colt M-4 .223-caliber rifles.

Seven bullets of at least 11 fired struck Bassler, Sacramento County Sheriff Scott Jones said. The names of the deputies have not been made public, pending a Mendocino County District Attorney's Office review.

"If he had been sleeping, or without a gun or with the gun strapped onto his back, that's a situation that could have allowed us to contact him without compromising officer safety," Allman said. "But he was carrying the rifle in his right hand with his finger in a tactical position. I don't believe it could have happened differently."

Emotional, financial costs

It's been three weeks since Bassler was killed, and people have begun venturing back into the forest.

People rallied around the families of Coleman and Melo, who have largely kept their grief private, and the law enforcement officers who came to the town's aid. A memorial for Melo drew hundreds to Fort Bragg High School's Timberwolves stadium.

Bassler's family has yet to have a funeral. They don't know how to handle their grief, Bassler's father said.

More than 200 men had been dispatched into the woods to find him over the course of the 36-day search. The Mendocino County Sheriff's Office spent $267,000 on overtime pay, hotel rooms, food and countless flashlight batteries among other supplies.

That figure doesn't include the costs incurred by the dozens of agencies that sent men in to help.

"Unfortunately, this will likely be the biggest case of their careers," Allman said of the teams.

It was, in many ways, a worst-case-scenario that law enforcement officers plan for, but don't often experience.

"I believe this is a situation which will be case-studied for years and years, both in terms of mental health issues and as to law enforcement issues," Allman said.

"I haven't stopped thinking about it."

News Researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this report.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.

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