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Fort Bragg: The hunt for a killer

  • Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, Wednesday Oct. 12, 2011 at his office in Ukiah. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2011

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.

Shootout In Search For Aaron Bassler

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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.


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