FORT BRAGG, Calif. (AP) - 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, month-long manhunt in the redwood forests of Northern California, authorities said.
Deputy Jason Ramos of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department said Aaron Bassler was shot and killed around midday outside Fort Bragg.
"I can confirm that he's been killed," Ramos said. He would not elaborate, except to say that his department's SWAT team had been involved in the final confrontation.
Bassler, 35, had been sought in the murders of Councilman Jere Melo and a local conservationist. Melo, who also worked as a security consultant for a local timber company, had been investigating reports of an illegal marijuana farm when he was ambushed by Bassler, authorities said, on Aug. 27.
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.
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. He exchanged gunfire with Alameda County deputies on Thursday, when authorities noticed he was dressed in black and had a high-powered rifle that was seen in a surveillance photo taken last week. It was the same weapon he is accused of using to kill Melo on Aug. 27.
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.
"To my knowledge, he's never had any training, but he's clearly got survival skills and is using his self-proclaimed militancy skills," said Sgt. Chad Lewis with the Sacramento County Sheriff's SWAT team. "He's very savvy in the woods; he's proven to be very adept."
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.