FORT BRAGG – His small coastal town is consumed with anger, grief and fear. James Bassler, a Fort Bragg fisherman with gray hair, a thick mustache and an anguish that grows by the day, lives it.
Two townspeople are dead. City Councilman Jere Melo, a 69-year-old former mayor and veteran forester, was gunned down with a high-powered rifle Aug. 27 while walking on timberland, looking for illegal marijuana grows. Conservationist Matt Coleman, 45, was found shot to death Aug. 10 after he went to clear brush on a wooded peninsula.
Now in its third week, the largest manhunt this North Coast region has ever known goes on as federal, state and local officers scour the forest for the slaying suspect, Aaron Bassler, 35, James Bassler's son.
For years, the father said, he has been tormented by his son's behavior, including drawings and writings about space aliens and an intergalactic conspiracy involving the Chinese military, and a 2009 arrest for throwing fake bombs over the fence of the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco.
"It's like the worst nightmare imaginable," Bassler said. "I hope that somehow he is brought in without getting hurt. But I'm frankly more worried about the people looking for him. I don't want any more of this."
The drama has frightened local residents, spawning regular – and apparently false – rumors of sightings of the gunman. Depictions of Aaron Bassler as a dangerous survivalist have scared off timber workers and backpackers. Fort Bragg's popular Skunk Train excursions were briefly halted, until the vintage locomotives resumed their mountain runs for tourists – with armed guards.
Police reports that Aaron Bassler was cultivating opium plants and had dug bunkers and built snipers' nests to protect his crop add a disturbing new twist to Mendocino County's reputation for illicit marijuana.
James Bassler said his son is mentally ill, a drug abuser who has had problems with methamphetamine. His son has a phobia of people, the father said, and for years hid behind black curtains in his grandmother's house, where he built a secret room in the basement. The father suggested his son, instead of killing to protect his crop, might have believed he was battling Martians.
No matter the circumstances, the case grips Fort Bragg, a working-class fishing and logging town that draws tourists to its coast and parklands.
Each day, a force of 30 to 50 officers scour the forests with automatic weapons, helicopters and search dogs. Their ranks include Mendocino County sheriff's SWAT officers, police and an elite special operations unit from the U.S. Marshals Service.
They are tracking a man who has lived in the backwoods off and on for years, starting after his first suspected psychological break at 18.
"He is still in the woods and knows them like the back of his hands," said Mike McCloud, a supervising criminal investigator for the U.S. Marshals Service. "It's his territory – and we're the interlopers."
Town buzzes with rumors
"Why the hell is it taking so long?" asked retired sailboat rigger Luther Jackson at the downtown Headlands Coffee House. "It makes no sense. If this had been a mountain lion, they would have caught it in 12 hours."
While authorities believe Bassler is still in the woods, residents have been distracted by reported sightings: that he was spotted in a park by the junior high school or near his mother's house; that he stopped at a market on state Highway 20; that he stole one car and siphoned gas from another.
"There are so many rumors that you don't know what's true and what's not," said Shani Christenson, 42, a jeweler at the North Coast Artists Gallery, which displays a "Wanted – Armed and Dangerous" poster showing Aaron Bassler with a shaven head. "That makes people really nervous."
Merianne Carlisle warned her school-age children not to stay outdoors after class and nearly canceled a family trip to Fort Bragg's annual Paul Bunyan Days parade because she feared, with a gunman loose, "something is going to happen."
"We ended up going," she said, "because you can't live in fear."
Though Aaron Bassler hasn't been caught, the Skunk Train runs to Northspur, a mountain picnic spot, and the town of Willits, have resumed. Los Angeles-area visitors Annelies Kischkel and Renate Eder said they thought conductor Chuck Whitlock was joking to enliven the tour when he mentioned the shootings and said armed guards were on the train.
"We try not to freak them out," Whitlock said. "We wouldn't run if we thought it was a real risk."
Civic leader mourned
A longtime timber industry supervisor who was working as a contract employee for a local logging company, Melo was hiking – unarmed – while looking for marijuana grows on private forest land when he was stuck down by rifle fire. A companion, who was armed, returned fire and ran to nearby train tracks, escaping by jumping onto a "speeder" car that follows the Skunk Train.
"Jere was the epitome of a small-town community leader," said Fort Bragg Police Chief Scott Mayberry. "He loved his town and he loved the forest – and the freedom it gave him."
So did Matt Coleman, a shaggy blond steward for the Mendocino County Land Trust. A former journalist and state Fish and Game worker, Coleman organized forest and coastal cleanups and worked to protect fish populations by keeping invasive plants and sediments from spoiling creeks.
"There was a real outpouring and love for him," said Winston Bowen, president of the Mendocino trust. "He was a cheerful, optimistic guy who got out and worked with his hands and generated real interest" in protecting the environment.
On Aug. 10, Bowen went looking for Coleman, thinking he might have run out of gas in the forest. He found his body.
"Until the killer is caught and interrogated, I don't think anyone is going to get a rational answer" for Coleman's death, Bowen said.
James Bassler doesn't think there is a rational explanation. The father, who divorced Aaron's mother when his son was 5, questions why his son wasn't committed following the Chinese Consulate incident. Aaron Bassler got probation and counseling after tossing suspicious packages that brought out the bomb squad.
In his wood frame house, Bassler sat beneath a photograph of his son dressed for a high school formal. He described how his son later became unhinged and "withdrawn from any kind of social engagement."
In recent years, he said, his son practiced with a cross-bow in the woods and took to obsessively drawing spacecraft and weapons systems and using red construction paper to make Chinese military stars.
In February, Aaron Bassler smashed his pickup truck into a tennis court and was arrested and charged with drunken driving and resisting arrest. Freed after a short stint in jail, he began telling his father "he was going to kill me, basically," James Bassler said, and that he was moving to the forest.
The father learned Aaron Bassler had a rifle after he heard several weeks ago that his son had bought ammunition at a local hardware store. "That's when I started panicking," he said.
Last Sunday, James Bassler rode with authorities on the Skunk Train speeder car, using a bullhorn to implore his son to come out of the forest, unarmed.
"I don't know what else to do," he said. "I tried to say, 'Your mother is worried. Your family is worried. But you've got to leave your gun behind.' "
Grief pervades the town. Last weekend, Melo was eulogized in a memorial service at Fort Bragg High School as a civic leader who "was the stuff of legends."
In Fort Bragg, population 7,000, anger mounts with each day the suspect isn't caught.