updated 8/29/2011 5:21:04 PM ET 2011-08-29T21:21:04

A Northern California town was reeling Monday after the death of a well-respected city councilman and former mayor who was gunned down after finding a remote illegal marijuana operation.

As authorities searched the rugged forest terrain for clues in the shooting, Councilman Jere Melo was remembered as a community leader who led efforts to build firehouses and a first-class high school football stadium in the coastal town of about 7,000 residents.

"We're in shock. It's unbelievable," current Mayor Dave Turner said Monday. "No one has put in as much work here as Jere has. And I don't think anyone ever will."

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Melo, a forest land manager, was killed Saturday while he and a co-worker were patrolling forestland on foot in a rugged area of timber land just outside town. Melo, 69, was investigating reports of a marijuana farm along the Noyo River, authorities said.

Melo's co-worker managed to escape and called for help on his cell phone.

Sheriff's deputies suspect the gunman was Aaron Bassler, 35, a transient with a history of run-ins with the law, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said.

Bassler's run-ins with law enforcement include crashing a truck into a Fort Bragg middle school tennis court, according to the Fort Bragg Advocate-News. Police used pepper spray and a Taser to subdue him before he was arrested.

Bassler was last seen with a firearm and should be considered armed and dangerous, Mendocino County Sheriff's Capt. Kurt Smallcomb said Monday.

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Officers from multiple agencies, including state fire prevention specialists and fish and game agents, are searching the area.

"All the jurisdictions involved have a stake in locating this suspect and preventing any other serious injuries," Smallcomb said.

Melo was in his 15th year on the City Council and had dedicated most of his life improving Fort Bragg. Services for Melo are scheduled for Sept. 10 at the football stadium he helped to build, Turner said. Melo is survived by a wife and two adult children.

Turner said city officials met with grieving staff on Monday. City Manager Linda Ruffing told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, "Jere was just loved and respected by so many people."

"We know we're crippled," Turner said. "We're still trying to process this and I told my colleagues that we have a truckload of work to do now because Jere did it more and better than anybody."

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