For four weeks, dozens of heavily armed law officers using high-tech gear, all-terrain vehicles and tracking dogs have scoured more than 30 miles of thick redwoods for a man who allegedly gunned down a beloved city councilman and a conservationist with a high-powered rifle from hiding places deep in the forest.
Wanted posters pepper this fishing and lumber town three hours north of San Francisco. Armed agents ride shotgun on the region's biggest tourist attraction, the fabled Skunk Train that has been traversing the redwood route from Fort Bragg to Willits since 1885.
And everyone wants 35-year-old Aaron Bassler captured. Some say dead, some say alive.
Elusive as he is, Bassler is no Rambo-like rogue survivalist.
People, including his father, say he is mentally ill with a history of bizarre behavior.
James Bassler said his son is a paranoid schizophrenic, who believes he is on the run from alien spacecraft, not the law.
"We don't want him to die; we don't want anyone else to die," said Bassler, a silver-haired fisherman who maintains the killings might have been avoided if county officials had heeded his pleas to get his son psychiatric treatment. "It would not have taken much to stop this thing."
Bassler said his son, who has deteriorated from the handsome and academically successful teen depicted in family photos, to an increasingly troubled and isolated man, is likely burrowed deep into the woods, living off wild fruit and breaking into cabins, some abandoned by residents who have fled.
The largest local manhunt in decades was mounted after authorities say Aaron Bassler fatally shot Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo on Aug. 27.
The 69-year-old security contractor and a co-worker at a private timber company confronted Bassler while investigating reports of an illegal marijuana farm outside of town. Police say Bassler was cultivating some 400 poppy plants, but no marijuana, and was holed up in a makeshift bunker when he fired on Melo and the co-worker, who escaped and called for help.
Bassler is also being sought in the fatal shooting of Matthew Coleman of the Mendocino County Land Trust. The former Fish and Game Department employee was found dead next to his car on Aug. 11 up the coast from Fort Bragg.
Both men were highly respected for their love of the land and their community work. "It's an overwhelming loss for our small community," said Fort Bragg Police Chief Scott Mayberry. "Sadness and fear now go hand in hand."
'There's some unease'
Fort Bragg — a town of 7,000 with both down-home and upscale businesses mixed in with a small fishing fleet and lumber yards — is on edge. People wonder aloud why local and federal law enforcement agencies can't find an alleged killer who emerged near his mother's home, only to escape into the forest again.
"There's some unease that this lunatic is out there on the loose and they're frustrated that he hasn't been caught yet," said Mary Ann Carroll, a sales clerk at Tangents, a downtown gift shop.
Capt. Kurt Smallcomb, who is heading the search for the Mendocino County Sheriff's Office, bristles at the criticism.
"I have no reason to believe he's left our perimeter," he said. "He's been living in this forest for close to 30 years. It's his home. But we're just starting to learn it."
The town hates being at the center of a drama that is scaring off badly needed tourists and leaving it the butt of jokes.
"You've turned our holiday into a scene from the film 'Deliverance,'" quipped Mike Smith of Leeds, England, who had not heard about the murders. "We'll be on the lookout for anyone playing a banjo."
Bassler described his son as withdrawn from reality and immersed in a world where he felt it necessary to warn of extraterrestrials.
Behavior grew more irrational
Aaron Bassler would spend hours holed up in the basement at a house owned by his grandmother. With nothing but a mattress on the floor and black curtains on the windows, he would draw submarines and aircraft, weapons systems and aliens.
"Some were like the big-headed, big-eyed aliens like you see in the movies; some of them were reptilian," his father said, standing with his wife on the porch of their modest Fort Bragg home, while a police helicopter pounded overhead.
Shortly after high school Bassler started drinking and using drugs, maybe mushrooms or acid. James Bassler said he never really knew.
He said his son was first arrested after crashing a party at 19. His behavior grew increasingly irrational, he could not hold down jobs, he would trash apartments and he had numerous run-ins with the authorities.
"He couldn't deal with people anymore. He couldn't stand to be around people," said Bassler.
His father brings out the red Chinese military stars that his son had fashioned out of rubber and buried in the back yard. Bassler threw similar red stars with a fake bomb over the gate of the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, leading to his arrest in 2009. In that case, Bassler was given psychological counseling, but then released when it was determined under California law that he was not an imminent threat to himself or others.
Bassler was arrested on DUI charges in February for ramming his truck into a school tennis court. He lost his license, and shortly after his grandmother died, he lost his room in her basement. "We could see it building up," his father said. "He lost his truck, then he lost his place to live; all his links to the real world."
In a Feb. 23 letter to Dr. Doug Rosoff, who heads up the Mendocino County mental health board, Bassler wrote: "Federal authorities arrested him for harassing the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. He was apparently acting out on his delusions dealing with space aliens and the Chinese."
Bassler called on Rosoff to diagnose his son and put him on medication to help stabilize him. But he said he got no response.
Ross Walker, an attorney with county counsel's office, said officials could not comment due to privacy laws.
'They'll find him'
The senior Bassler hopes the case will lead to the adoption of the so-called Laura's Law in Mendocino County. The state law adopted in 2002 — but left to each California county to implement locally — allows for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment for those who refuse treatment and have been repeatedly jailed or hospitalized due to mental illness. It's named for Laura Wilcox, a young woman in Nevada County who was killed by a man who refused medical treatment. Nevada County is the only one to implement it thus far. Los Angeles County is conducting a pilot program.
Carla Jacobs, a mental health advocate with the California Treatment Advocacy Coalition who helped draft Laura's Law, said that if it had been in place in Mendocino County, it would have allowed the elder Bassler to seek a court-ordered investigation to determine if Aaron qualified for assisted outpatient treatment.
Without that, she said, "the families are left out in the wilderness crying for some help."
The Mendocino County Board of Supervisors has ordered a report on the costs and effectiveness of Laura's Law.
For now, Bassler awaits word of his son.
"This is not Afghanistan," he said. "They'll find him. He'll make a mistake."