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Sacramento County sheriff’s SWAT team members slay fugitive

Sacramento Bee, Sunday, Oct. 02, 2011

Sheriff's Deputy Shane Gregory, left, and Sgt. Ron Parsons, right, greet one another as officers involved in the manhunt gather near a Mendocino County sheriff's substation in Fort Bragg on Saturday.

Aaron Bassler was shot and killed by members of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department SWAT team just after noon Saturday, ending a grueling 36-day hunt for the Fort Bragg man believed to have ambushed and killed a Fort Bragg councilman and a forest worker on the Mendocino County coast.

Bassler, 35, had an assault rifle in hand and his finger near the trigger when three members of a Sacramento County SWAT unit posted in the dense forest spotted him walking along a timber road, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said.

When they saw Bassler on the logging road, the three-person Sacramento team was about 40 yards from him and 25 feet up a rise, Allman said.

“Seven shots were fired and all seven hit him in the upper torso,” the sheriff said. “I’m not aware if all three deputies fired, but more than one did.”

Bassler was considered armed and dangerous, but he didn’t fire his gun before the deputies fired on him, the sheriff said.

“He was carrying his rifle completely ready to engage,” Allman said. “There was a round in the chamber and the rifle was on fire. … I’ve stated many times that I wish this incident could have ended without another shot fired. But I fully support the manner in which this ended. No more lives are endangered by Aaron Bassler.”

Greg Melo, the son of former Fort Bragg Mayor and timber manager Jere Melo who authorities believe was gunned down by Bassler five weeks ago, said he had been informed of the suspect’s death by a relative in Fort Bragg.

“I heard what I needed to hear. None of our people got hurt, and the threat’s neutralized,” said Melo, 41, who lives in Coos Bay, Ore. “I’ve got so many friends in Fort Bragg who are breathing easier.”

As many as 60 law enforcement personnel have been combing the rugged forest east of Fort Bragg for signs of Bassler since a witness saw him shoot and kill Melo, 69.

Mendocino County officials requested more help from the California Emergency Management Agency on Thursday, after Bassler fired on officers from Alameda County, and Allman said he expected 12 or 14 Sacramento County SWAT team members to assist. Instead, he said, 27 deputies and supervisors from Sacramento showed up.

“That additional personnel allowed us to put additional teams into the woods,” he said.

Authorities had left numerous messages to Bassler with instructions about how to surrender.

But on Thursday, he opened fire on three Alameda County deputies aiding in the search. They fired back about 10 times before he disappeared.

Until then, Bassler had only been spotted one other time, when deputies saw him near a house early on the morning of Sept. 4.

They called to him, but he got away, slipping into the woods though a police dog made some kind of contact with him, returning with what has variously been described as an article of clothing and backpack.

Greg Melo said that his father was patrolling private forest lands on Aug. 27 with the other man, who has not been identified, looking for an illegal marijuana grow, when Bassler charged through the brush, shooting Melo in the chest six times.

Melo’s companion fired back, then fled toward the Skunk Train, where he flagged down a maintenance rail car car that took him to safety.

Bassler later was linked to the shooting death of Mendocino Land Trust manager Matthew Coleman, a 45-year-old Albion resident whose body was found Aug. 11 near his car on an oceanfront ranch owned by the Save the Redwoods League.

Local, state and federal law enforcement officers, including some from the FBI, the U.S. Marshal’s Office and sheriff’s departments around California, have been involved in the exhausting search through rugged, dense, bug- and poison-oak infested forest.

The 7,000 residents of Fort Bragg had been on edge while the manhunt enveloped the coastal community. 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 Bassler’s 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 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 would pass a law allowing court-ordered assisted outpatient treatment for those who refuse treatment.

Greg Melo said there was no joy in the news of Bassler’s death, but relief that he no longer had to check the news each day in fear he’d hear Bassler had hurt or killed someone else.

“There’s an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, but I tell you, there is no real recovery from this,” he said. “I’ve lost my dad, and Mr. Bassler’s lost his life, and we’ve got two dead people.”

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