Former mayor and long-time Fort Bragg City councilman Jere Melo was shot to death last Saturday morning about four miles east of Fort Bragg. Melo died instantly from what police subsequently described as “numerous gunshots from a high powered rifle.” An as-yet unidentified armed man accompanying Melo returned fire before the gunman disappeared into the dense undergrowth above the Skunk Railroad tracks. Melo's friend scrambled down to the Skunk tracks where he flagged down the “speeder car,” an all-purpose service vehicle that follows the Skunk train to extinguish sparks thrown off the track by the train. The speeder car returned Melo's shocked companion to the Skunk Depot in Fort Bragg where he summoned police.
Melo had reportedly made it known to law enforcement on Friday that he knew a troubled man named Aaron Bassler was growing either marijuana or opium poppies or both on the timberland Melo supervised for Campbell Timber Management. Melo, unarmed, but accompanied by the younger friend who was armed, had driven out to the vicinity of Bassler's trespass grow on Saturday morning with an apparent view to marking the garden for the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department to eradicate.
The presumed shooter, Aaron Bassler, 35, has a lengthy criminal history, including a number of 5150 citations, police code for persons judged to be a danger to themselves or others because of mental illness.
A native of Fort Bragg, Bassler has ten arrests in Mendocino County beginning in 1994 when he was 18. He also has at least one federal misdemeanor conviction from a 2009 incident in San Francisco when he was apprehended after four bizarre attacks on the Chinese Consul's offices at Geary and Laguna. Bassler had thrown parcels resembling small bombs onto the Consulate's property. Each time a bomb squad was summoned to disarm what turned out to be packages containing incoherent claims alleging Chinese military designs on the United States.
Bassler's parents, from whom he is estranged, are separated but live in the Fort Bragg area.
Earlier this year Bassler, driving at night under the influence of alcohol and methamphetamine, crashed his pick-up truck into the tennis courts at the Fort Bragg Middle School. Fort Bragg police subdued Bassler but not before he'd proved impervious to pepper spray and the police had deployed a taser device to stun him into submission.
Each of these unhinged incidents represented an escalating recklessness and a clear hazard to whatever community Bassler was living in, although each was adjudicated as a misdemeanor. Bassler, clearly in deteriorating mental health, would serve a few days in county jails in San Francisco and Mendocino County before he was granted probation; only in San Francisco did he undergo mandated mental health counseling.
Immediately after the first reports of Saturday's shooting, the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department dispatched a large number of heavily armed deputies to the area where Melo had fallen. Because Bassler was armed and also was assumed to be established several hundred yards above the site where he'd shot Melo, responding officers were forced to move into the area with the greatest caution. It took them some time to locate then retrieve Melo's remains as the shocking news of the popular councilman's murder reverberated up and down the Mendocino Coast.
As of Tuesday, Bassler remained at large.
Three weeks ago, the shooting death of another timberland manager, Matt Coleman of Albion, had shocked residents of the Mendocino Coast. Coleman, 45, was found dead by his vehicle near Rockport, not far up the Coast from where Melo was shot to death Saturday. Coleman's death remains under investigation. Ballistics tests will reveal if the murders are related.
It is widely assumed that Coleman's murder occurred when he encountered a person or persons involved in the thriving and ubiquitous Northcoast drug trade.
Eric Grant of the Mendocino Redwood Company remains missing, His vehicle was found last year at a turnout on Highway One where Grant was known to enjoy his lunch breaks. He had been working on MRC property on Navarro Ridge Road just before he disappeared. His remains have not been found.
A fit, vigorous man of 69, Melo was employed by Campbell Timber Management, owner of much of what was once Georgia-Pacific timber land running east and north of Fort Bragg. Melo was born in Mount Shasta. He spent his professional life as a Fort Bragg-based forester for Georgia-Pacific. He'd lived in Fort Bragg since 1966 where he was active in civic affairs. He served two terms as mayor of the seaside town of 8,000 people and was an Army veteran.
At the Fort Bragg end of the Skunk line the tracks double as a path to town for the homeless camps long entrenched between the Fort Bragg Cemetery and the train tunnel. It is assumed that the tracks served as Bassler's re-supply route between his opium poppy garden and Fort Bragg.
Mendocino County at marijuana harvest time is always tense, but this season has been especially violent and the tension is greater than ever. Growers are armed against the numerous pot thieves, also armed, who prey on the valuable ripening cannabis, and many areas of the County become no-go zones to ordinary citizens as trespass grows become harvest-time armed camps.
And then there are the lone wolves, the Aaron Basslers, armed and dangerous, about whom his own father says he keeps a handgun on his nightstand. James Bassler also said Monday he'd unsuccessfully sought mental health services for his son who, Mr. Bassler said, exhibited no signs of mental illness until he began using drugs at about age 18.
Services for Jere Melo are scheduled for Saturday, September 10th, 2pm at Timberwolf Stadium, Fort Bragg.
A Fort Bragg resident posted this assessment of the weekend's events: “You're on vacation on the Coast, going for a nice ride on the Historic Skunk Train, and just before you go through the tunnel into the warm country, you hear 7 or 8 shots, then some guy comes running toward the train to flag it down saying someone has been shot. Train can't go back to Fort Bragg through the woods because the shooter is still around somewhere. So halfway between Fort Bragg and Willits, Mendocino Transit Authority buses pick up the passengers and take them back to the Coast over Highway 20. End of pleasant rejuvenating vacation. What's this going to do for the reputation of this area? There's no more fishing or logging, and tourism is the supposed cure-all, except that the real industry up here is pot, with these kinds of tragic fallout…”
Click here to read Dan Gjerde's letter on the death of Jere Melo.