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Fort Bragg slaying suspect killed by sheriff's deputies

A monthlong manhunt in the rugged redwood forests around Fort Bragg in Northern California came to an end Saturday when authorities shot and killed Aaron Bassler, a fugitive who was suspected in two killings, including that of a local city councilman.

A three-man SWAT team found Bassler around midday Saturday and fired at him, said Mendocino County Sheriff Thomas Allman.

The 35-year-old fugitive, who was said to have schizophrenia, was armed but did not shoot at sheriff's deputies. He was killed at the scene. None of the three law enforcement officers were injured.

Bassler is suspected of killing Fort Bragg Councilman Jere Melo on Aug. 27 and Matthew Coleman, a manager for a local conservation group, on Aug. 11.

Bassler had been surviving in the dense forest of Douglas firs and redwoods for the last month, at one point escaping from a police search dog and later exchanging gunfire with deputies before disappearing again into the trees.

The shootings and the manhunt left the small tourist town about 160 miles north of San Francisco on edge, with many residents saying they felt like their picturesque coastal community had turned into a war zone.

"It was a burden on everybody, just knowing that there was somebody out there that was willing to kill," Fort Bragg Mayor Dave Turner said Saturday after Bassler's death was confirmed. "Everybody understood that he was out in those woods."

Residents, some already wary because of an influx of illegal marijuana-growing operations, were warned by law enforcement officials to stay out of the woods while authorities searched for Bassler.

The historic Skunk Train, which carries tourists on sightseeing ventures past the location of Melo's killing, was temporarily closed down. When it reopened, camouflaged law enforcement officers climbed aboard searching for Bassler.

"This community loves the woods," said Winston Bowen, president of the Mendocino Land Trust, the nonprofit where Coleman worked. "But for the last month, instead of a place of beauty, it's been a place that gives people cause to be fearful for their lives."

On Thursday, deputies exchanged gunfire with Bassler but did not catch him. On Friday, sheriff's officials said, they found Bassler's trail after he allegedly broke into a remote shop near Northspur on the Skunk Train route and stole beer, food and ammunition.

Officers from several different agencies broke into 10 teams of three men each and began conducting surveillance of the surrounding woods.

A team from the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department came upon Bassler about 12:30 p.m. Saturday. He was clad in black and wielding an automatic weapon, officials said.

Bassler raised his arm, but did not fire his gun, Allman said. Deputies shot him.

"I fully support the manner in which this happened," Allman said at a news conference Saturday evening. "No more lives will be in danger because of Aaron Bassler."

The killing ended one of the most intense manhunts in the area in recent memory.

Mendocino County sheriff's deputies, with help from dozens of other agencies including the U.S. Marshals Service, Orange County Sheriff's Department and Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, kept tabs on Bassler even as he continued to elude them.

The density of the forest complicated the search because infrared technology could not penetrate the foliage from the air.

Fingerprint evidence and a photograph from an automatic camera indicate that Bassler was breaking into vacation cabins in the area. One resident reported two weapons missing, adding to a cache that Bassler was believed to have amassed.

In early September, a search dog got close enough to him near his mother's house to grab his backpack.

Bassler's father, Jim, 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.

Jeremy James, who described himself as Bassler's friend from Fort Bragg High School, said he had watched his friend descend into mental illness after graduation.

"I'm broken," James said Saturday. "As crazy as he was, he was my best friend for so many years."

According to officials, Bassler fired at Melo, who worked as a part-time security guard for a local timber company, when he and a co-worker were searching for what they suspected might be a marijuana plot in an area east of Fort Bragg.

Instead, authorities said they encountered a heavily armed Bassler and a stunted poppy batch that he cultivated for personal use.

Melo, a retired forester and beloved civic leader, died at the scene. The other man who accompanied him was able to escape and called authorities on his cellphone.

After Melo's death, Bassler also was named as a suspect in Coleman's killing weeks before in a different area north of Fort Bragg.

Melo had served on the Fort Bragg City Council since 1996, and also was a member of several state and county commissions. After his death, more than 1,000 residents came to a memorial in his honor.

His son, Greg Melo, said in an interview Saturday that Bassler's death brought a sense of closure for his family.

"I feel that law enforcement gave Mr. Bassler every opportunity to surrender," Greg Melo said. "This was the only possible outcome for the scenario."

sam.allen@latimes.com

sam.quinones@latimes.com

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