FORT BRAGG (CBS / AP) — A man suspected of killing two people in Mendocino County coastal communities in the past seven weeks—including a former Fort Bragg mayor—allegedly fired on Alameda County sheriff’s deputies Thursday, a sheriff’s sergeant said.

Aaron Bassler is the lead suspect in the murders of Matthew Coleman, an environmentalist who was killed near Westport on Aug. 11, and Jere Melo, the Fort Bragg city councilman slain Aug. 27 on private timber company property adjacent to the Noyo River.

A group of Alameda County sheriff’s deputies joined the manhunt in the redwoods Sunday, Alameda County Sheriff’s Sgt. J.D. Nelson said, after the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office requested aid from adjoining agencies.

“Their resources are taxed,” Nelson said.

The suspect has been at large in the redwoods since Melo’s slaying, and at about noon Thursday, three Alameda County sheriff’s deputies encountered Bassler, a transient who knows the rugged terrain well from having lived in the area for some 30 years.

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.

Bassler fired on them with what authorities believe was a rifle, the deputies returned fire, and a short time later, Bassler fired at them from a different angle, Nelson said.

The deputies were uninjured, he said, but it was not known if Bassler was struck.

Nelson said the dense forest prevented the deputies from giving chase after the gunfire exchange.

The Alameda County Sheriff’s Office is one of six sheriff’s offices among the long list of law enforcement agencies assisting in the manhunt. According to the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office, the search is the largest in the county’s history.

“To see this through to the end is the goal,” Nelson said.

The U.S. Marshal’s Office; Willits, Fort Bragg, Murietta, Placerville and Ukiah police departments; California Highway Patrol; California Fish and Game, California State Parks, the FBI, the U.S. National Guard, and Civil Air Patrol are all involved in the search.

A $30,000 reward is being offered for information leading to Bassler’s arrest.

Melo, who served as Fort Bragg mayor from 2000 to 2004, was killed at about 10:20 a.m. on Aug. 29 after he discovered an illegal marijuana grow east of the town.

“He was such a gentle giant of a man and such a man’s man. He represented a bridge to the old mill company town culture and our community’s future,” a friend wrote of Melo on a memorial website two days after his slaying.

Coleman worked as a conservation steward, volunteer coordinator and wildlife population surveyor for the Mendocino Land Trust for the past six years. He was killed while conducting restoration work on a coastal reserve near Westport.

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.

Anyone with information is asked to notify authorities at (707) 463-4086 or anonymously by email to



(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)


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