California slayings suspect killed in massive manhunt

Aaron Bassler, 35, suspected of killing a city councilman on Aug. 27 and one other person several weeks before, was shot dead Saturday during a police manhunt in the redwood forests near Fort Bragg, Calif.
Aaron Bassler, 35, suspected of killing a city councilman on Aug. 27 and one other person several weeks before, was shot dead Saturday during a police manhunt in the redwood forests near Fort Bragg, Calif.Mendocino County Sheriff / AP
/ Source: staff and news service reports

A man suspected in the fatal shootings of a Fort Bragg councilman and a county land trust official was shot and killed Saturday after a massive manhunt in the redwood forests of Northern California, authorities said.

Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman said Aaron Bassler was shot seven times some 6 miles east of Fort Bragg after he was sniffed out in the forest by a bloodhound tracking a nearby burglary. Three members of the Sacramento County's SWAT team were in the trees above Bassler and when they saw him coming toward them on a timber trail, they shot him.

Allman initially said Bassler, 35, raised his gun at the deputies as they approached, but later said he raised his rifle as he was falling from the gunfire.

"I wish that this incident could have ended without another shot being fired," Allman said. But, he added, "I fully support the manner in which this ended. There will be no more lives which will be endangered by Aaron Bassler."

Bassler had been sought since Councilman Jere Melo and a second man separately confronted him while investigating reports of an illegal marijuana farm outside of town.

Police said Bassler was cultivating some 400 poppy plants and was holed up in a makeshift bunker when he fired on the 69-year-old Melo and a co-worker who escaped and called for help.

Bassler was also wanted 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.

Law enforcement personnel plan as they look over maps at the law enforcement staging area at the Northspur train station, as the search for murder suspect Aaron Bassler continues, on Friday, Sept. 30, 2011, west of Willits, Calif. Authorities said Friday they were closing in on a murder suspect who shot at officers during the largest local manhunt in these northern California redwoods in decades. (AP Photo/The Press Democrat, Christopher Chung)Christopher Chung / The Press Democrat

Dozens of local and federal authorities scoured the forests near Fort Bragg in one of the area's largest manhunts in decades, but Bassler eluded them for more than a month. A surveillance photo showed that he was armed with a high-powered rifle, and he was believed to have broken into several cabins to steal food and at least two other weapons.

The 7,000 residents of Fort Bragg had been on edge while the manhunt enveloped the coastal community about three hours north of San Francisco. Both Melo and Coleman had been well regarded locally for their love of the land and volunteer community work.

"Relief," said Elizabeth McNeill, a sales clerk at the Sears appliance store in downtown Fort Bragg. "It's a sad situation, but now people can relax. I just hope Jere's wife can get some closure."

Morgan Peterson, a baristo at the Headlands Coffeehouse, said he had hoped for a peaceful resolution. "It makes me kind of sad" that the standoff ended in Bassler's death, he said. "But it wasn't unexpected, and I'm glad it's over."

Posters seeking his capture hung in the windows of most shops in this fishing and lumber town, where authorities told residents to stay out of their vacation cabins until Bassler was arrested.

Chriss Zaida, who owns a clothing store across from the coffeehouse, heard whooping in the streets when news of Bassler's death spread through town. "But I'm not high-fiving people," she said. "I have the utmost sympathy for his victims, but also for the law enforcement agents who had to do what they had to do. And I can't imagine what his family is going through."

Bassler's father, James, was out of town on Saturday. His stepmother, Helen, said she was devastated but did not want to comment further.

James Bassler had been vocal about his son's undiagnosed mental illness after his past arrests for DUI and for throwing red military stars and notes over the fence of the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. He told The Associated Press in a recent interview that he had called on Mendocino County officials to help his son, and hoped the Board of Supervisors will pass a law that would allow for court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment for those who refuse treatment.

Officials had been confounded by Bassler's skills and ability to elude them in the 400-square-mile search perimeter. Authorities believe that during his time at large, he broke into a half-dozen cabins in the woods to restock his food supplies.

The forest is also frequented by tourists, particularly those who take the fabled Skunk Train that traverses the redwood route from Fort Bragg to Willits. The railroad, which runs near Melo's murder scene, had been partially commandeered to transport agents and supplies into the woods.