Authorities say Calif. fugitive fired at deputies

September 30, 2011 - 3:10 AM
Councilman Killed Manhunt

An Alameda County Sheriff's deputy lets out a nervous sigh near the Northspur area of Mendocino County, Thursday Sept. 29, 2011 between Fort Bragg and Willits, Ca. Murder suspect Aaron Bassler, 35, who has been the subject of largest manhunt in Northern California in decades is suspected of shooting at a group of sheriff's deputies Thursday, authorities said. Bassler, is suspected of killing a city councilman on Aug. 27 and one other person several weeks before. (AP Photo/Kent Porter - Santa Rosa Press Democrat)

FORT BRAGG, Calif. (AP) — Authorities say they are closing in on a murder suspect who has been the subject of Northern California's largest manhunt in decades — even as they reported that he shot at a group of sheriff's deputies Thursday.

The Alameda County deputies searching in the redwood forest where the man has been at large for more than a month weren't hit and fired about 10 shots in response, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said at a Thursday night news conference.

Aaron Bassler, 35, is suspected of killing a city councilman on Aug. 27 and one other person several weeks before. Bassler is thought to be hiding out in the redwoods outside of Fort Bragg and is believed to have broken into several cabins to steal food and at least two other weapons.

Allman did not know how many shots Bassler is suspected of firing, or whether he had been wounded in the exchange. More law enforcement officers were being flown into the area to join the 40 officers involved in the search, he said.

"We believe we really and truly encircled him in a way that tomorrow may bring resolution ... but I have said that for 34 days," Allman said.

The search was scheduled to continue around the clock, with air searches, fog permitting, in the daytime. Investigators believe Bassler is hiding in the forest and surviving without help from anyone.

"We have no reason to believe people are supplying him with food, logistics, information. There is $30,000 reward," Allman said.

Officials are asking residents and others to stay out of the forest until Bassler is captured.

Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo, who also worked as a security contractor, and a co-worker at a private timber company confronted Bassler while investigating reports of an illegal marijuana farm outside of town.

It was unknown whether the gunman was stalking the officers during Thursday's exchange of gunfire but he was using a high powered assault rifle like the one believed to have killed Melo, the sheriff told reporters. "He clearly was shooting at them with a rifle." he said.

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 the co-worker, who escaped and called for help.

Bassler is also being sought 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.

Both men were highly respected for their love of the land and their community work. The 7,000 residents of Fort Bragg have been on edge while the manhunt by dozens of local and federal agents has enveloped their coastal fishing and lumber community.

James Bassler said he believes his son suffers from schizophrenia and for years has talked about aliens and spaceships, while crafting Chinese military stars and drawings of weapons systems. His son was arrested in 2009 after he was accused of flinging some of those red stars over the fence of the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, but was released after authorities determined he was not an immediate threat to himself or others.

Aaron Bassler was arrested again on DUI charges in February after he allegedly rammed his truck into a school tennis court. He lost his license, and shortly afterward, lost his place to live.

"He lost his truck, then he lost his place to live; all his links to the real world," his father said in an interview last week.

Earlier this week, authorities released a photo of Bassler vandalizing a vacation cabin while holding a high-caliber rifle. On Wednesday, they confirmed his fingerprints linked him to another burglary at a cabin.

James Bassler said he had tried for years to get county authorities to have his son put into a mental health program, but that his letters and calls had gone unanswered due to privacy laws that protect his son.