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Authorities Try To Close In On Mendocino County Fugitive

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Aaron Bassler

Aaron Bassler (Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office)

FORT BRAGG (CBS / AP) — Authorities said Friday they were closing in on a murder suspect who shot at officers during the largest local manhunt in the northern California redwoods in decades.

About 50 officers and two bloodhounds were scouring the forests near Fort Bragg, a day after Aaron Bassler fired shots at Alameda County deputies, said Kurt Smallcomb, a captain with Mendocino County sheriff’s office.

No deputies were hit by the gunfire. They returned fire with about 10 shots.

Bassler has been at large for more than a month in Northern California.

“We were real close and lucky at the same time that nobody got injured,” Smallcomb said.

Bassler, 35, is suspected of killing a Fort Bragg city councilman on Aug. 27 and one other person several weeks earlier.

Bassler is thought to be hiding 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, authorities said.

“He is totally prepared to tactically engage us,” Smallcomb said. “He has proven this in the last two shooting incidents.”

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said he did not know how many shots Bassler was suspected of firing, or whether he had been wounded in Thursday’s exchange. The search team, which includes U.S. Marshals, was bolstered Friday with sheriff’s deputies from Sacramento and Lake counties.

They feel certain they’re closing in.

“I’m looking at the glass is almost full, instead of half full,” Smallcomb said.

He added that Bassler has a huge edge with his knowledge of the area.

“He’s known this area for 30 years, we’ve only known it for 34 days,” Smallcomb said. “He has the advantage as far as the landscape now.”

Wanted posters are in the windows of most shops in this fishing and lumber town three hours north of San Francisco. A half dozen armed agents rode shotgun Friday on the region’s biggest tourist attraction, the fabled Skunk Train that has been traversing the redwood route from Fort Bragg to Willits since 1885. An AP photographer saw at least three get off in Northspur, near the command center deep in the redwoods.

Officials asked Fort Bragg residents and others to stay out of the forest until Bassler is captured.

“Why haven’t they caught him yet?” said Matt Lunsford, 29, who was hanging out with friends in front of the popular Headlands Coffeehouse in the historic downtown that dates back to the 1800s.  “He’s like some Rambo—he’s out there defying the man.”

Fort Bragg 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.

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 a 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 has enveloped their coastal fishing and lumber community.

“We all have our shoulders in our ears, we’re so spooked,” said Chriss Zaida, owner of Toto Zaida, a clothing store across from the coffee shop. She said there has been a lot of talk of vigilantism, but that most people believe the authorities are doing the best they can, given Bassler’s apparent marksmanship.

“I’ve heard a lot of people say he deserves to die,” she said, shaking her head. “I think he needs to be brought to justice—and I hope it happens quickly.”

Earlier this week, authorities released a photo they said was 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.

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

Smallcomb and Allman hope to capture Bassler alive.

“If this ended without another shot being fired,” Allman said, “we’d all be satisfied.”

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

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