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Fort Bragg suspect to be charged in 2 shootings


FORT BRAGG — A disturbed Fort Bragg man being sought in the weekend slaying of City Councilman Jere Melo was charged Friday with the earlier shooting death of a local land steward gunned down on the Mendocino coast.

Aaron Bassler, 35, remained at large Friday, likely somewhere in the vast woods east of Fort Bragg, where more than two dozen deputies and officers have been deployed throughout the week in search of the man now suspected in two homicides.

Authorities would not describe the evidence linking Bassler to the Aug. 11 death of Matthew Coleman in a remote section of ranchland north of Westport, but obtained an arrest warrant naming him as the suspect in both cases on Friday afternoon.

A criminal complaint has been filed against Bassler in Mendocino County court charging him with two counts of first-degree murder and two special circumstances that makes him eligible for the death penalty or life imprisonment without possibility of parole if guilty of the crimes.

Mendocino County District Attorney David Eyster said through a spokesman that it was too early to determine whether prosecutors would seek death in the case.

The special circumstances include an allegation Bassler lay in wait for Melo and that he committed multiple murders.

He additionally is charged with the attempted murder of a still-unidentified man who was with Melo when he was killed, and three special allegations for his alleged use of a firearm in all three charged offenses.

Sheriff's Capt. Kurt Smallcomb declined to comment on similarities between the two slayings, or the evidence discovered at each scene. Sheriff's detectives said they are continuing to collect evidence, interviewing witnesses and working with the California Department of Justice Forensic Laboratory and district attorney's office in the investigation.

News of the arrest warrant confirmed the worst fears of Bassler's father, James Bassler, who said earlier this week he believed his son was responsible for Coleman's death in addition to Melo's slaying.

Bassler said his ex-wife told him she dropped off their son near Westport around the time that Coleman, 45, was found slain on an ocean-front ranch. James Bassler said he later learned his son had a rifle with him at the time he was dropped off nearby.

Smallcomb declined to comment on any communication the sheriff's office may have had from anyone in Bassler's family prior to Melo's slaying. He said both of Bassler's parents have been cooperative with authorities during the investigation.

James Bassler said he first had a "hunch" that his son could be involved in the Coleman homicide before Melo was killed, but he never acted on his feeling or alerted authorities.

"I feel guilty" for not running down to the police station, he said Thursday. But he added, "No one listened to me before though."

In letters to jail medical staff, the county psychiatrist and his son's public defender from a previous case, James Bassler pleaded for help for his son, whom he said suffered delusions and paranoia. He said he received no response from authorities.

Bassler's father said his son had become increasingly unstable and isolated, and made the heavily forested coastal hills his home for the past several months.

He said his son had some contact with his mother from time-to-time and she dropped him off north of Westport on or around Aug. 11. She has declined repeated requests for interviews.

Coleman, a one-time Fish and Game Department employee who served as land manager for the Mendocino Land Trust, was working nearby on a 400-acre ranch owned by the Save the Redwoods League.

He was shot several times and was found dead near his car about a mile west of Highway 1, sheriff's officials said.

News of the shooting's connection with Bassler brought some measure of relief to those seeking closure about what happened to Coleman.

On Friday, a sign hanging inside a photo gallery on Main Street advertised a $17,400 reward for information about Coleman's death.

"Nothing really made sense, except that we were never really going to make sense of it," said Scott Zeramby, a close friend of Coleman who owns Dirt Cheap, a garden shop in Fort Bragg.

Coleman's colleagues from Mendocino Land Trust began looking for him when he didn't return from his day's work, Zeramby said. His death was first reported by authorities as a bear attack, and then later as a homicide, he said.

A memorial for Coleman was held about a week ago at Big River Beach, which was one of his favorite spots, Zeramby said.

"He's always face down in the creek counting fish," Zeramby said. "He knew more about the local flora and fauna than anyone I knew. When he wasn't there working, studying the fish he was playing, studying the fish."

In his work, Coleman maintained trails, monitored stream conditions and pulled invasive species from beaches. And outside of work, he was just likely to be doing the same while camping, kayaking, studying birds or backpacking with his girlfriend Sue Coulter.

"They were inseparable," Zeramby said.

Coulter declined through friends to comment Friday.

The possible connection between Coleman and Bassler strengthened Zeramby's belief that Coleman's death was not related to drugs.

"It's not that the woods are being taken over by cartels," Zeramby said. "Maybe they are, maybe they aren't. But this wasn't any result of that. He was doing his job clearing weeds."

Sixteen days following his shooting, Melo, a longtime city councilman, former mayor and a forester working as a contract employee for Campbell Timberland Management, was out patrolling private timberland for illicit marijuana growth about four miles east of town when he was shot and killed, authorities said.

Friends and acquaintances gathered at the management company Friday afternoon to remember their friend in a private memorial.

U.S. Congressman Mike Thompson Friday also offered his condolences in a statement released by the Fort Bragg mayor's office:

"Words cannot begin to express the magnitude of the tragic loss of Jere Melo to our community ... Jere was part of the fabric of the Fort Bragg community and the glue that kept all sides working together. He was a dedicated public servant and a dear friend," Thompson said.

Friday evening, at the kickoff ceremony for the 72nd annual Paul Bunyan Days celebration which extends through Monday, Fort Bragg Mayor Dave Turner asked the handful of residents attending for a moment of silence to remember Melo, his friend. Behind the stage where Turner spoke, a massive flag was draped over City Hall in Melo's honor.

"He would want us to have fun," Turner said. "He helped us many times to keep the Paul Bunyan days going ... I just want to welcome everyone and ask to keep Jere in your mind this weekend."

Normally, the Bunyan festival begins with a mock ax-fight between the mayors of Willits and Fort Bragg. But this year, that didn't feel right so they canceled it, Turner said.

"In some ways it's a good thing to know that there's only one person out there," Turner said. "I think people that live on the edge of the forest are more concerned."

As Friday came to a close, the rugged, vast forest had not given up the slaying suspect, but Smallcomb said authorities planned to "stay the course."

"We'll keep at it until we get him," Smallcomb said.

Despite losing his friend, Zeramby hoped for a peaceful solution to the manhunt, where he said Bassler had a distinct advantage over the searchers because of his time spent living in the woods.

"At this point, we're hoping that somewhere along the way this kid has some revelation and that he turns himself in," Zeramby said.