Fort Bragg murder suspect, deputies exchange gunfire but he eludes capture
Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman said in a Thursday evening news conference that Fort Bragg double-murder suspect Aaron Bassler fired on three law enforcement officers as they searched the thickly wooded hills about 14 miles east of this coastal community earlier in the day.
The deputies fired about 10 shots in self-defense, he said. They were not injured. Allman did not know how many shots Bassler fired, or if he had been wounded in the exchange.
Allman added that the searchers had seen Bassler but had not had voice contact with him. They believe they have him contained in a roughly six-square-mile area.
“We believe that we have really and truly encircled him in a way that tomorrow will bring resolution,” the sheriff said. “Through the tactics and through the intelligence gathering we’re to the point of having an understanding that we’re close to resolution. But I’ve said that for 34 days.”
Bassler, 35, has been charged in the Aug. 27 shooting death of Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo, a former mayor and private timber company security contractor; and the Aug. 11 killing of Mendocino Land Trust land manager and conservationist Matthew Coleman.
The search has pulled in support from the U.S. Marshals Service and a host of state agencies. On Friday, more reinforcements will arrive, including K-9 search teams from the Orange County Sheriff's Department. The three men Bassler fired on Thursday are Alameda County deputies -- part of a team of about 40 searchers who have been rotating through the continuous search.
Allman said Bassler is in an area near Northspur but declined to offer more details. He called on residents to "stay out of the forest."
"We’re asking them to be aware of their own safety," he said. "We’re asking them to use their brain on this one and let law enforcement do their job." If authorities get any indication that Bassler has left that six-mile area and is heading east toward the town of Brooktrails, Allman said he would “activate reverse 911” to warn residents. But for now, there is no indication that the suspect is moving that way.
The killings and subsequent search have placed the tourist-friendly area on edge. The historic Skunk Train, which runs past the location of Melo's killing, was temporary closed down. Law enforcement have been riding it since it reopened.
Allman said Thursday that any decision to shut down would be up to the train operator. "We are not closing it down," he said.
Fingerprint evidence and a photograph from an automatic camera indicate that Bassler has been breaking into vacation cabins in the area. One resident reported two weapons missing, adding to a cache that Bassler is believed to have amassed.
While searchers have left notes for Bassler asking him to surrender peacefully, until the incident Thursday afternoon they have not had contact with him since a search dog grappled with him near his mother's house on Sept. 4, returning with his backpack.
Allman said the density of the forest is complicating the search, because infrared technology cannot penetrate the foliage from the air. But he said the search will continue overnight.
Bassler’s father, Jim Bassler, has said his son suffered from paranoia and delusions and was fixated on aliens and Chinese red stars. He had been ordered into counseling in 2009 after a federal arrest for lobbing packages containing musings and drawings on such subjects onto the Chinese Consulate’s property in San Francisco.
But Jim Bassler said his son was resistant to help. He moved into the forest more than four months ago after the sale of his grandmother’s house, where he had been living alone.
According to officials, Bassler fired on Melo when he and a co-worker were searching for what they suspected might be a marijuana plot. Instead they encountered a heavily armed Bassler and a stunted poppy batch that he is believed to have cultivated for personal use.
Officials later tied Bassler to the killing of Coleman in a different area on Aug. 11. They now say DNA evidence places him at the scene.
-- Lee Romney in San Francisco
Top photo: Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman holds up a picture of the man authorities believe is Aaron Bassler during a news conference earlier this week. Credit: Associated Press
Inset photo: Aaron Bassler Credit: Mendocino County Sheriff's Department