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Grief, questions linger in Mendocino killings

  • Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman explores an area, Friday August 17, 2012 believed to be where Jere Melo parked his vehicle, encountered and subsequently was murdered by Aaron Bassler last year, which sparked a month long manhunt for the killer in the woods near Fort Bragg. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2012

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, sitting in a back office of his Fort Bragg outpost that a year ago was the nerve center of a grinding manhunt for a deranged killer, acknowledged that he still keeps two lists from that five-week ordeal.

On one, he tallies the things that might have brought a swifter end to the unprecedented backwoods search for Aaron Bassler, 35, the Fort Bragg native who had ambushed two well-known North Coast men.

The other is a list of questions he never will be able to ask Bassler, who was killed by snipers after 36 days of eluding capture in the rugged forest east of town. Bassler's indecipherable motives left behind great loss but no answers.

Shootout In Search For Aaron Bassler

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The killings and all-consuming search closed vast swaths of the woods to the public, filled the communities with a sense of dread and dampened a local economy that depends on timber and tourism.

One year later, as the sheriff looks back at what-might-have-beens, the Mendocino Coast outwardly forges ahead. Summer camps reopened on schedule. Hunters again ventured out. The historic Skunk Train that last year transported deputies and supplies into the back country where Bassler was on the run, has returned to its routine of chugging through town with a cargo of tourists.

Yet the shooting deaths of Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo, 69, on Aug. 27, 2011, and Mendocino Land Trust land manager Matthew Coleman, 42, on Aug. 11, 2011, still weigh on the communities where they lived and worked.

The coast is populated by resilient people, yet the underlying psychological recovery is slow.

"You know how you feel as you are just getting over a bad flu? You know you are on the mend, but boy, does your body hurt," said Robert Pinoli, manager of the Skunk Train, seated in his wood-paneled office at the train depot.

Not far away, the bells on the First Baptist Church in central Fort Bragg ring through the fresh salty air and the sound mixes with the lilt of a guitarist playing at the North Franklin Street farmers market in front of City Hall.

"I can't believe it has been a year," said Angela Liebenberg, 36, a state park biologist who was selling lettuces, herbs and green onions at a table.


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