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.