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.
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