And thus ended the short, sad saga of Aaron James Bassler, shot to death a little after noon on last Saturday's perfect fall day. The 35-year old Bassler had shot and killed two Mendocino Coast men before disappearing into the woods east of Fort Bragg where, for 36 days, he successfully eluded a multi-agency police noose that slowly, inexorably tightened around his doomed neck.
On his final day at his fatal hour, the troubled Fort Bragg man was walking south on an old logging road, not two miles from his mother's house. Bassler was about four miles east of downtown Fort Bragg when a three-man hit team with that lean, intelligent look of special forces soldiers, ended Aaron Bassler's life with seven shots to the fugitive's upper torso, with at least two high powered rounds striking Bassler in the head. He was gone before he hit the ground.
According to the police post-mortem, as he approached the three sharpshooters hidden in the brush, Bassler's index finger lingered at the trigger of his multi-shot semi-automatic rifle. His weapon was not on safety. Bassler, as he had been for 36 days, was ready to commence firing and, it is also said by the police, seemed to instinctively move for his trigger as the fatal bullets struck him.
The Sacramento swat unit that shot Bassler was hidden off an old logging road about 40 yards and some 20 feet above Bassler as Bassler approached them.
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said Monday that if Bassler had not so clearly been ready to shoot he would have been given an opportunity to peacefully surrender.
“If,” the Sheriff said, “we'd come up on him when he was asleep or unarmed we could have taken him peacefully.” The Sheriff also said that police had left messages in the woods for Bassler urging and instructing him how to safely surrender. But Bassler was unmoved. He seemed determined to play out the fatal logic of the escalating violence that had taken over his troubled life.
Sheriff Allman went on to say that when a Humboldt County deputy had spotted Bassler early on in what became an international media story, but did not see a weapon on him, the deputy, although he had a clear shot at Bassler, did not shoot. But when Bassler subsequently encountered an Alameda County search team Bassler not only fired on them he attempted to outflank them in an apparent effort to ambush them from behind.
Responding to rumors that the police intended to shoot Bassler on sight, Sheriff Allman said, “If there'd been a shoot to kill order this thing wouldn't have lasted 36 days.”
The three man team that put an end to Bassler's suicide mission was one of several elite swat units staked out Saturday along the trails they now knew Bassler inhabited.
Bassler had previously been assumed to be some 15 miles to the east near Northspur, the Skunk train stop also known locally as the north end of Irmulco Road whose south end is Highway 20 linking Willits and Fort Bragg. The Northspur-Irmulco area is home to quite a number of full-time residents. Bassler had broken into cabins and homes in the Irmulco neighborhood.
But Bassler had since made his way through the Northspur police cordon back towards Fort Bragg. A bloodhound had tracked him Friday to the general vicinity of his mother's house after he'd broken into a nearby auto repair and machine shop just off Sherwood Road. After the dog confirmed Bassler's presence in this new area outside the inland police cordon miles to the east, it was only a matter of time before the special forces teams, now hidden away along the old logging roads and trails of a much smaller area, would encounter Bassler himself.
And they soon did as the fugitive, rather heedlessly for a man who'd managed to hide from the police for more than a month, walked into ambush view just after noon Saturday in broad daylight.
“He didn’t have any empathy,” his father has said about his son's descent into a suicidal isolation. “He just sort of flat-lined.” Mr. Bassler also said that he slept with a gun handy on his nightstand; he'd become that fearful of his son.
Bassler's family says Aaron became so isolated, spent so much time alone in the woods, that he found even a few minutes of ordinary conversation so stressful that “he would just walk off.”
Bassler has always been closer to his mother. She had driven her son to the Rockport area where he subsequently shot and killed Matthew Coleman. Persons close to Bassler's mother say she, too, had become afraid of him, and had driven him to the Rockport area simply to get him away from her.
Sheriff Allman, responding to a suggestion that Bassler's mother seems to have been something of an enabler in the jargon of pop psychology describing persons who help self-destructive people do bad things to themselves or others, the Sheriff rather heatedly declared, “You can't say a mother is an enabler. A mother is a mother.”
It is still not known why Bassler wanted to go to Rockport where Coleman, 45, managed a property for the Save The Redwoods League. Rockport is at least 45 minutes by vehicle from Bassler's unique opium poppy grow less than five miles from downtown Fort Bragg. It was at the opium site that Bassler shot and killed Fort Bragg City councilman Jere Melo. More than two weeks before he shot Melo, Bassler had shot Coleman to death. That shooting had mystified police; the popular Coleman of Albion had no known enemies. Bassler was linked to Coleman's shooting by DNA and, it is assumed, rifle ballistics examinations of the fatal wounds suffered by both Coleman and Melo.
It was at Bassler's opium poppy garden above the Skunk Train's first tunnel four miles from the train depot in central Fort Bragg where Bassler suddenly charged out of the heavy underbrush to shoot Jere Melo to death at virtual point blank range, a distance since estimated at about ten yards. Melo died instantly from a volley of rifle shots. The man with Melo, Ted Balassi, returned fire before running down the steep hillside to the nearby Skunk rail line for help.
Melo managed the property where he died for the Boston-based Hawthorne-Campbell Timber Company.
A loner, who had spent years in the woods by himself, Bassler was first arrested in October of 1994, the year of his graduation from Fort Bragg High School. The charge was receiving stolen property, specifically a pair of AK 47 assault rifles and another gun an acquaintance had stolen from his father. Bassler, in his first appearance in the famously lenient courtroom of Ten Mile Court judge, Jonathan Lehan, was sentenced to 90 days in jail with 87 of those days suspended, plus two years probation.
Three more arrests for a vandalism, a drunk in public and a DUI occurred in 1995.
And on it went as the young man's mental health deteriorated, a deterioration expedited by heavy drinking and methamphetamine.
In February of 2009, Bassler was arrested by the FBI for tossing paranoid messages rolled up like dynamite sticks at the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. He may have attended court-mandated therapy sessions in connection with his Chinese offensive but, as Bassler's despairing father has pointed out, no one knows for sure because the authorities, federal and local, inevitably cite patient confidentiality laws as they refuse to confirm or deny, let alone discuss, a subject's mental health history.
The Bassler family's repeated warnings to Mendocino County authorities that their son was quite likely a danger to others were simply ignored.
Bassler's arrest by federal authorities in San Francisco required him to get mental health treatment and, Bassler's father told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, “ fearful of being jailed, Aaron toed the line.” One of the conditions of his federal probation was that he stay with his mother at her home on Sherwood Road, Fort Bragg.
But when his federal probation ended, Bassler resumed drug and alcohol use and, according to his father, “became increasingly delusional and anti-social.”
His parents couldn't help but see a steady deterioration in their son's rationality while his criminal record indicated an increasing tendency to life threatening behavior. In February of this year, careening drunk through Fort Bragg at speeds upwards of 80 miles per hour, Bassler lost control of his pick-up truck and, as students gathered for a dance looked on, hurtled onto the Fort Bragg Middle School tennis courts. He then had to be subdued by police when he resisted arrest. He'd been pepper sprayed and was still smarting from the spray's chemicals when his booking photo was taken. That photo, incidentally, is the one most often used by the media. It makes Bassler look quite maniacal although in ordinary circumstances there was nothing off-putting about Bassler's appearance.
The consensus, though, from everyone who dealt with Bassler, including law enforcement, is that Bassler presented a mental health dilemma not unique to him. Mental health staffers, not speaking for attribution, say that “drug induced mental illness” isn't, strictly speaking, mental illness as we usually think of mental illness.
“These people aren't crazy when they are off drugs,” a Mendocino County Mental Health staffer has said. Prevalent in Mendocino County for years now, methamphetamine often leads its consumers into temporary psychosis. At any one time, there are lots of people pinballing around the County in varying states of self-induced mental illness because of methamphetamine. Off the drug, they function normally.
Aaron Bassler was unwell on or off drugs, but off drugs he seemed quite resourceful and functioned well enough to sustain himself in the woods for long periods of time.
And now it's over, as are the lives of three people taken before their time.