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Sheriff launches manhunt for suspect in councilman's killing

Mendocino County Sheriff's OfficeAaron Bassler is wanted in connection with the shooting deaths of Jere Melo and Matthew Coleman.

As residents around Fort Bragg confront the loss of two community leaders, the Mendocino County SWAT Team and supporting law enforcement units continue the manhunt for the shooting suspect.

Aaron Bassler, 35, is wanted in connection with the Aug. 26 killing of city Councilman and former Fort Bragg Mayor Jere Melo, 69, while Melo was patrolling the land of a private timber company as an independent consultant to the Campbell Group.

On Friday, Mendocino County sheriff’s detectives obtained an arrest warrant for Bassler in the shooting deaths of Melo and Matthew Coleman, 45. Coleman, a property manager and coordinator of volunteers for the Mendocino Land Trust, was found shot to death near his vehicle while checking on property at Cape Vizcaino on Aug. 11.

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Winston Bowen, president of the Mendocino Land Trust, said Coleman was unassuming and an active conservationist. Coleman’s specialties were trail building, road maintenance and invasive species removal.

“He was a smart, smart guy, one of those guys who went in and made a difference with his hands,” Bowen said, “a champion of the environment.”

Based on evidence collected at both crime scenes, sheriff’s detectives are searching for the man they believe to be responsible for both deaths.

According to James Bassler, father of the suspected killer, his ex-wife had dropped off their son near the site of Coleman’s shooting around the same time as the killing.

The elder Bassler had been worried about the mental decline of his son for years. In a letter sent earlier this year to the county’s psychiatrist, jail medical staff and Aaron Bassler’s public defender, James Bassler predicted his son’s criminal future.

“His family fears for his safety, their own safety and that of the community if this psychiatric disorder is not addressed,” James Bassler wrote.

Department of Fish and Game warden Don Powers had made contact with Aaron Bassler on several occasions. Powers said he was not surprised Bassler was listed as the prime suspect in the shootings.

“His mental faculties just aren’t all there,” Powers said in an interview.

Powers said Melo and an unnamed associate were patrolling forestland near the Noyo River on Aug. 26 with knowledge that Aaron Bassler was on the property. Bassler, according to Melo’s partner, opened fire on the two men while protecting an opium poppy field. Melo was unarmed. His partner was able to escape and contacted police. 

Powers said he doesn’t believe Bassler has the ability to grow a poppy garden by himself. He thinks Bassler was probably working for someone else.

Capt. Kurt Smallcomb of the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office said he is confident that Bassler will be apprehended.

“We’re not going to falter,” Smallcomb said. “We’re eventually going to get there. My biggest concern is that no one gets hurt in between.”

Smallcomb said the detective’s team has some good leads it is following.

“A lot of people are on pins and needles here,” Smallcomb said of the community in Fort Bragg. “Everybody is kind of looking over their shoulder a little bit.”

One local man affected by the slayings is Jerry Philbrick, a landowner and president of Philbrick Logging & Trucking. As a landowner, Philbrick has encountered trespassing marijuana gardens on his property. He was also a friend of Melo's.

“I knew Jere Melo almost as well as I knew my own father,” Philbrick said. “It’s a terrible loss. Jere Melo was a well-known, well-liked guy. He was important to the timber industry and an overall good guy.”

Regarding the trespassing grows on his own property, Philbrick doesn’t hire private security to deal with the sites – he walks in armed and destroys the gardens himself.

“This was several years ago, when the marijuana problems first stared cracking out in Mendocino County pretty good,” Philbrick said. “People were growing wherever they could find a spot; they didn’t care whose land it was. When I find an area ... I’d go in there and destroy it. I was armed then, and I’m armed now.”

Paul Trouette, a Fish and Game commissioner in Mendocino County, leads a team of volunteers in environmental reclamation efforts of marijuana grow sites after law enforcement eradicates the plants. Trouette is pursuing creating a private security business that will specialize in dealing with trespass marijuana grow threats to private landowners.

Trouette believes it was a mistake on Melo’s part to go into an area with a known threat without being armed or having a qualified support team to back him. As saddened as he is by the killings, Trouette said he thinks this will make landowners reassess the value of hiring properly trained security when dealing with increasing violence in the Mendocino area.

“You can’t go into these areas ill-prepared or complacent – that’ll get you killed,” Trouette said.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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