FORT BRAGG, Calif. >> The 7,000 residents of Fort Bragg can now relax after spending more than a month on edge while the area’s largest manhunt in decades enveloped their coastal community about three hours north of San Francisco.
The massive operation came to a close when authorities shot and killed the subject of the search, a fugitive accused in the deaths of two area officials.
Elizabeth McNeill, who works as a clerk in an appliance store in downtown Fort Bragg, said she is feeling a sense of relief, “It’s a sad situation, but now people can relax.”
Aaron Bassler, 35, was shot seven times Saturday in an area of redwood forest about 6 miles east of Fort Bragg after being sniffed out by a bloodhound, said Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman. Three members of the Sacramento County SWAT team were in the trees about 40 yards from Bassler when he came toward them on a timber trail.
Bassler was suspected of killing a city councilman in late August and a county land trust official several weeks before. Bassler was thought to be hiding out in the redwoods outside of Fort Bragg, breaking into several cabins and businesses to steal food and weapons.
Both of the men authorities say Bassler killed, Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo and Mendocino County Land Trust officer Matthew Coleman, were well-regarded in the community.
“I just hope Jere’s wife can get some closure,” McNeill said.
The manhunt disrupted life in the area as law enforcement officials restricted forest use and told residents to stay out of their vacation cabins until Bassler was arrested.
Wanted posters offering a $30,000 reward for Bassler hung in the windows of most shops.
Chriss Zaida, who owns a clothing store in the area, heard celebration in the streets when news of Bassler’s death spread.
“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 Bassler, was not immediately available for comment. He has told The Associated Press that Aaron Bassler had undiagnosed mental illness and said he had tried unsuccessfully to get help for his son.
Authorities had been searching for Aaron Bassler since Aug. 27 when they say he shot and killed Melo, who with a co-worker was investigating reports of an illegal marijuana farm in his role as a security consultant for an area lumber company.
Melo’s associate escaped and called for help, leading authorities to hundreds of poppy plants and a bunker where they say Aaron Bassler was holed up when he shot Melo, 69.
Officials had been confounded by Aaron Bassler’s survival 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.
“He’s very savvy in the woods. He’s proven to be very adept,” said Sgt. Chad Lewis of the Sacramento County Sheriff’s SWAT team.
Dozens of local, state and federal authorities scoured the forests near Fort Bragg, but Bassler eluded them for more than a month. Authorities got close to him Thursday, when they say he exchanged gunfire with Alameda County deputies. Authorities say Bassler was dressed in black and had a high-powered rifle that was seen in a surveillance photo taken last week, the same weapon they say he used to kill Melo, the same one they said he was carrying Saturday.
A break in the search came Friday when a shop owner told authorities his door had been kicked in and that ammunition, beer, food, two compasses and some boots had been stolen. A bloodhound from the Pomona Police Department named Willow and his handler, Pomona Police Officer Joe Hernandez, began tracking the burglar’s scent, leading them to Bassler.
“I wish that this incident could have ended without another shot being fired,” said Allman, the Mendocino County Sheriff. 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.”
Allman initially said Bassler raised his gun before the deputies fired. He later said the fugitive raised his rifle as he was falling from the gunfire. There had been no verbal exchange, but the sheriff said the deputies saw Bassler walking with his finger poised near the trigger before they fired.
The sheriff said Bassler’s rifle was loaded with about 30 rounds, its safety off. He also noted that officials believe Bassler had already killed two people with the same weapon he was carrying on the trail and had shot at three sheriff’s deputies days earlier.
“Any confrontation or contact with law enforcement agents was going to be lethal and deadly,” Allman said, adding that law permits officers to shoot at a suspected felon under such circumstances.