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Aaron Bassler, the man sought in connection with two North Coast homicides, was spotted briefly by sheriff's deputies early Sunday near his mother's home before he fled back into the woods where authorities believe he has been hiding since last weekend.

The 8:15 a.m. sighting was the closest a law enforcement search team has come to apprehending Bassler, 35, since he became a suspect in the Aug. 17 shooting death of Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo.

"It's the first confirmed sighting," said Mendocino Sheriff's Capt. Kurt Smallcomb. "The deputies were close enough to engage with him."

The deputies had verbal contact with Bassler and then sent a police dog after him. The dog made some type of contact, though it is unknown if Bassler was injured, Smallcomb said.

The fugitive escaped, heading northeast into the dense forest that backs up to the rural neighborhood where Bassler's mother, Laura Brickey, lives, about two miles east of Fort Bragg near the Skunk Train tracks.

Officers from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies flooded the neighorhood and the woodlands where Bassler is believed to be hiding, ratcheting up a force averaging about 30 officers that has been searching all week to an armed contingent of 50 to 70.

As of 9 p.m., Smallcomb reported that Bassler had not been found. He said air crews also were aiding the search, which would continue through the night.

Bassler also is a suspect in the shooting death of Matthew Coleman, 45, who was found Aug. 11 on a coastal ranch about 35 miles north of Fort Bragg, next to his car about a mile west of Highway 1.

Authorities Friday charged Bassler with both slayings as well as the attempted homicide of a man who was with Melo and apparently recognized Bassler as the shooter.

The Sherwood Road house is located about two miles west from the spot along the Skunk Train rail line where Melo was gunned down.

Brickey was home at the time her son was sighted Sunday, but Smallcomb said officials do not believe they had any contact.

"His family has been supportive of us trying to apprehend their son without other injury," Smallcomb said.

After the sighting, witnesses said deputies and officers surrounded the area, many with their guns drawn. By afternoon, the area around the house had become a command center for staging the search operation. Law enforcement teams created a perimeter to the west, north and east of the home.

Between 10:30 a.m. and 11 a.m., authorities activated the Sheriff's Office "reverse 911" call system to warn Fort Bragg residents within a five-mile area of where he was spotted to stay inside, lock their doors and be vigilant following the sighting.

Judy Cutino, 51, who lives on Benson Lane off Highway 20, said she received a recorded phone call at about 10:45 a.m. from the Sheriff's Office.

"It said that a homicide suspect has been seen in your area, lock your doors and windows, stay inside and use caution," Cutino said.

Fort Bragg Mayor Dave Turner said Sunday that word that Bassler had been spotted spread quicky, but didn't cause unnecessary alarm in town.

"People are optimistic. A sighting is good," Turner said.

As law enforcement reinforcements moved into the forest, the town continued to celebrate the weekend Paul Bunyan Days that concludes Monday with a parade through downtown beginning at 11 a.m.

Turner said that while he had been busy with the logging show, he's been receiving regular updates from sheriff's officials.

"We're very optimistic that he'll be caught," Turner said.

By Sunday afternoon, groups of officers dressed in camouflage and bullet-proof vests walked out of the woods after a day of searching and back to the command post at Bassler's mother's home.

"It appears they're circling in on him," said James Bassler, the suspect's father and Brickey's ex-husband, when reached by phone.

Bassler said he called the Sheriff's office soon after he heard about the police activity to let them know that he was available if they needed someone to talk to his son should there be a standoff.

"I want there to be a peaceful ending," he said.

The driveway to Bassler's mother's home was cordoned off with caution tape.

The single-story house sits among fruit trees and redwoods, set back from the two-lane paved road that winds through the rural neighborhood before turning into a dirt road lined by towering trees, less than a 10-minute drive from downtown Fort Bragg.

Two doors down, Debbie Rodgers, 58, said she received a phone call early Sunday from a friend who had heard Bassler had been seen.

"It's scary, but it's good everyone is around," said Rodgers, surrounded by three barking dogs.

Additional patrols will remain in the neighborhood, Smallcomb said.

"I'm concerned about everyone in this community right now until he's safely apprehended," Smallcomb said.

Bassler is being sought in connection with the shooting deaths of Melo, 69, on Aug. 27 and Mendocino Land Trust worker Matthew Coleman, 45, whose body was found Aug. 11 on a coastal ranch north of Westport.

Melo apparently was looking for illegal marijuana gardens on private timberland when he was gunned down, sheriff's officials said. A man who was with him, who remains unidentified, returned fire and escaped. He recognized Bassler, officials said.

Coleman, who was found next to his car about a mile west of Highway 1, had been shot several times, officials said.

Bassler was charged Friday with both killings and the attempted homicide of the surviving witness. Sheriff's officials declined to say what evidence led them to connect the cases.

Bassler's father had said his son was in the Westport area when Coleman was killed.

The two deputies who spotted Bassler were from Mendocino and Humboldt counties.

The search effort includes law enforcement officers from the FBI, U.S. Marshals Service, state Department op Fish and Game , California State Parks, California Department of Justice, Willits and Fort Bragg police, California Highway Patrol and sheriff's deputies from Mendocino, Humboldt, Lake and Sonoma counties.

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