In the quiet mountains above this small coastal town, it feels at times as if war has broken out.
Large swaths of the forest have been closed to visitors. Helicopters with infrared cameras fly above the mountains. And at one point last week, camouflaged sheriff’s deputies rode the area’s picturesque Skunk Train, which usually carries tourists on a winding trip through the woods.
The officers, joined by FBI and state forestry agents, have been hunting for the man who shot and killed Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo last Saturday. Melo, a retired forester and beloved civic leader, was inspecting a patch of steep timberland east of town as part of his part-time job as a contracted security guard.
His death was only the most recent in an unsettling series of events that have shaken the dark stands of Douglas firs and redwoods.
The last few days have been “worse than war. You don’t know where the enemy is,” said one man, who requested anonymity because he lives near where Melo was killed and where the manhunt is taking place. “You have trouble sleeping. You have trouble holding food down.”
The violence in these mountains has simmered for years, fueled by the illegal marijuana growers drawn to the isolation, good weather and laissez-faire culture of these parts.
In July, federal prosecutors announced a sweeping raid in which 460,000 pot plants were destroyed and 101 people arrested in and around Mendocino National Forest. U.S. Atty. Melinda Haag told reporters at the time that the area was “under attack” by drug growers, adding: “I’ve warned people who come up here during the summer to be careful when they go hiking.”
On Aug. 11, Matthew Coleman, who worked with the nonprofit Mendocino Land Trust, was shot to death by an unknown assailant while restoring land north of town.
Two weeks later, Melo, 69, was gunned down. The suspect, Aaron Bassler, 35, was described by his father as schizophrenic and possibly also involved in Coleman’s death. He had a bunker in the area and had been tending not marijuana but about 100 opium poppies, said Mendocino County Sheriff’s Capt. Kurt Smallcomb. Melo was shot close by.
Bassler is still at large and believed to be armed, on foot and living off the land. Mendocino County sheriff’s officials said that on Friday a warrant was issued for his arrest in the slaying of Coleman as well.
The changes across these remote coastal mountains began at least a decade ago when lumber giant Georgia-Pacific Corp. closed its Fort Bragg mill in 2002, taking away hundreds of jobs.
Young people “either left or started growing marijuana,” said the man who lives close to where Melo was shot.
The pot industry expanded in size and sophistication. California’s medical marijuana law brought a new wave of people to Mendocino and Humboldt counties in what locals call the “Green Rush.” Mexican growers moved in, starting pot plantations on untended forest lands.
Smallcomb said the influx of growers brought a rise in home-invasion robberies and killings over the last decade. That, in turn, spawned an arms race as farmers bought weapons for protection against armed robbers.
Growers dotted the woods with sensors, trip wires and camouflaged cameras to keep an eye on their operations.
Traveling armed is common in some areas. On a recent morning, the man who lives near the area where Melo’s killing took place entered the woods fully camouflaged and carrying a Mossberg shotgun, with a holstered Desert Eagle .44 Magnum pistol and night-vision goggles at his side.
“We just passed two marijuana grows,” he whispered. “There’s another up ahead that’s worth half a million dollars.”
Mountain bikers, mushroom pickers, scientists and foresters still spend time in the hills, but some locals have begun to avoid the area.
The community of Covelo in eastern Mendocino County once had a thriving annual deer hunt. These days, “no one goes to the east side of Covelo to hunt” for fear of stumbling on pot farms, said Wayne Briley, chief of Mendocino County’s hazardous materials team. “I have friends who hunt, who can’t. Growers have taken away their area.”
Fort Bragg Fire Chief Steve Orsi added: “Back in the day, when your kid got old enough, you brought him out in the woods. It used to be a serene place. I cherish the time that I did it…. Now, I’m not bringing my kid out there.”
The violence has spread to nature itself.
To hide from authorities, pot farmers have taken to growing marijuana inside lighted shipping containers powered by diesel generators. The strategy has left the woods pocked with diesel spills and piles of trash.
In the last year, officers have been finding pot plantations, particularly those run by Mexican nationals, ringed with highly toxic d-CON to kill rats that could eat their crops. Often nearby are dead owls and foxes that had eaten contaminated rodents.
“There’s a whole ecosystem of death that goes up from this rodenticide,” Briley said.
In a region banking on tourism to keep it from economic collapse, one of its great natural attractions — the forest — now seems as toxic as any polluted river.
For all the changes of the last decade, Fort Bragg residents were still struggling to absorb the loss of Jere Melo, whose death hit so much closer to home than the usual drug shootout.
“Right now, what people feel isn’t fear; it’s sadness,” said Rich Pyorre, an insurance agent.
The town’s annual Paul Bunyan Days celebration, held over Labor Day weekend, is honoring Melo this year. A memorial with his photo stood in the lobby of City Hall. Store windows displayed wanted posters with Bassler’s photo.
Next Saturday, a memorial for Melo will be held at the high school stadium. Much of Fort Bragg, population 7,000, is expected to turn out. Meanwhile, the manhunt for his alleged killer continued through the forests that have sustained the town for years.
Even if he is found, no one expects the mountains to be quite the same again.
For decades, timberland caretakers like Melo have been unarmed retired foresters, driving around in trucks to make sure no one was collecting firewood or camping in private woodlands. It was a simple job — a long-accepted part of the forest landscape — that kept many men active well into retirement.
“Their focus is going to change; they’ve got to be real cops,” said Briley, Mendocino’s hazmat chief. “It used to be they’d have a beer with [campers and trespassers] and send them on their way. Those days are obviously over.”