Q&A With James Bassler
by Bruce Anderson, October 12, 2011
Mr. Bassler's son, Aaron, after killing Matt Coleman of Albion then, two weeks later, Jere Melo of Fort Bragg, was himself shot to death by Sacramento police officers two weeks ago. Roaming the heavily forested area northeast of Fort Bragg where he'd isolated himself for many years, Aaron Bassler, 35, had been a fugitive for more than a month prior to his death. He was the subject of the largest police manhunt in Mendocino County history and had become the subject of national and even international media attention.
MR. BASSLER: I'm trying to get Laura's Law passed. Laura's Law (court-ordered outpatient therapy) saves money. It's been proven in Nevada County and in New York. It could have prevented this whole thing. I don't think Aaron ever would have cooperated with therapy even at an early age. If Laura's Law had been in place he would have qualified. He met all the criteria. He was obviously dangerous at the time he was drunk and ran into the tennis court at 80mph. And at Colombi's Market where he was threatening police officers. He's been sick for a long time. Laura's Law would have brought things to light and he would have had to enter a program.
AVA: Supervisor Pinches doesn't seem hostile to Laura's Law in theory, but he said recently that it would cost more money than Mendocino County has, and is likely to have any time soon.
MR. BASSLER: I think it depends on how you measure cost. In the long run it would save money because it would prevent the kind of thing we've just been through.
AVA: And now he's gone, as are two other undeserving people.
MR. BASSLER: The Sheriff talked about how Aaron’s finger was on the trigger and how at least two officers fired out of three. That sounds like a firing squad with one person given a blank. You don't know which one didn't shoot and kill. They didn't miss any shots. They thought they were in danger. Why did only two shoot him? You could wing him if you're that accurate. Seven shots? Aaron was not fighting back. I don't want to attack the Sheriff's Department or the Sacramento swat team. I think they felt that had to assassinate him simply because they thought he was dangerous. But in our system you're not supposed to convict somebody in the field. It's because they were afraid of him, afraid for themselves. Well, I was afraid of him, too. I was just as afraid of him, but I didn't have a sniper rifle. I did think about shooting him at times because I was that afraid. I tried to depend on the County system, but I was ignored. Laura's Law would have at least given him a chance. Aaron might not have lived through this anyway even if he'd been captured. The court process would have been a circus, it's true. But I hold the system responsible. I asked for help and none was there. To me, that's what went wrong.
AVA: Wasn't Aaron an immediate suspect in the Coleman murder?
MR. BASSLER: No, but he should have been. I tried later to explain to police officers that there was no rational explanation for what Aaron was doing. They don't know what to do with that kind of information. There's nothing in the codebook. It's not a criminal violation to isolate yourself in the woods. But if someone had checked into it at all, they would have realized that his living conditions were terrible. They would have spoken to family members. It would have been obvious that there was a serious problem. On my own, I could not have talked him into any kind of medication or therapy. I tried that. But with some encouragement it could well have worked. After the Chinese consulate incident (Aaron had tossed incoherent messages at the consul's San Francisco offices and was arrested by the FBI) it was clear that probation was really lax. He stalled them and put things off and didn't go to meetings in Santa Rosa and they let him slide on everything. However, with a judge's help under Laura's Law he could have been coerced into participating. He never served the 45 days he was sentenced to by the feds. He served only 20 something. The judge had a big thing hanging over his head and we could have gotten him started into something perhaps. I don't know where it would have gone. I never had a chance to see him on any medication or what kind of person he might be under medication. He didn't get a chance. Coleman didn't get a chance. Neither did Jere Melo. That's the tragedy of this whole thing. At that point Aaron was so far gone he lashed out to hurt someone. He was totally isolated in the woods and having his delusions and paranoia. The woods was obviously the worst place for a person like him. He always looked for the most remote places he could find to hide and cover his delusional tendencies. I thought, Well at least he was not in town. In the last few months all I know about what he did was to come out of the woods and go to his mother's house and get some food. He did the same thing after the Coleman murder. He would leave his gun and ammunition in the woods and come up to the house to take a shower and maybe go to the store or something. That's how out of touch he was.
AVA: There are lots of people, including professional mental health people, who say Aaron was fine until he got into methamphetamine.
MR. BASSLER: He was off anyway. There was no direct connection with methamphetamine at all. Because of his delusions you could find that he was off all the time. That was nothing new. He had been way off for years and years. He thought somebody was after him. His delusions and real life somehow sort of merged. When he was out in the woods he probably functioned in some ways better than he had in town. But he stopped learning things as a teenager. He acted like a teenager out there. His mind was totally arrested when this first began. After his schizophrenia came on he did not make another friend, he had no new hobbies, he could not function in any adult capacity.
AVA: Aaron made many appearances before Judge Lehan at Ten Mile Court. Could Lehan have ordered an intervention?
MR. BASSLER: I don't think the judge ever had enough information to make any commitment decision. Aaron's first arrest had nothing to do with schizophrenia or drugs. His friend was mad at his father and stole some guns from him, and Aaron was stupid enough to hold the guns for friend. That was stupid and he paid the price for that. I don't think that had anything to do with any kind of psychotic break. I don't know if the time he stole his mother's car had anything to do with his mental illness. I can't remember exactly when some of this happened. The first time we realized he had a mental health problem was when he was arrested on foot for being under the influence. He had been doing some kind of drugs, probably acid or mushrooms or something. Definitely not meth, but some other things. The first we heard about him being arrested was when he was in the county jail. He was 19. I think that was in the spring of 1996. We had trouble getting information from the jail or the police about what was going on. They thought he was way out there on drugs. I think they just held him overnight and turned him loose in the morning. He was only held a day or two. Then we heard he was wandering around Ukiah and he was not dressed properly for the weather. If he had been in his normal state of mind he would have shown up at his grandmother's house in Ukiah but he didn't. Finally, we got a call that he showed up at the jail again and we went over to get him. He was so weird. He scared the hell out of us. We didn't know what was wrong with him. It's hard to describe. He was disoriented. He was out there. Screwed up. Apparently, when he got out of jail he just went down to the Ukiah railroad tracks and hung out with the homeless people for a few days. He talked about them. Said they were nice people. But he also seemed angry. He was so strange for days after that. He told me he wanted to go to the library to read something about nuclear physics.
AVA: I was told by a couple of cops that Aaron functioned just fine while he was incarcerated.
MR. BASSLER: I don't believe that. I had my longest engaging conversation with him back then when he got out of jail. He spoke about his time in jail. He must have been isolated at first. He didn't tell me about that. I think he was pretty drunk at first. He was afraid of the other people in there. He called once and he was just frantic. It's clear that jail was making him worse. His mother got several of those calls from jail. He was finally put in a cell with people he wasn't afraid of. But he did talk about how people wanted to murder him.
AVA: At age 19 he was already not reality-based?
MR. BASSLER: Yes. He had his good days and bad, he functioned to some extent. But he continued to have a lot of trouble. He got some money from an insurance payoff after an accident. Then he picked up some drunk driving arrests. He was tossed in jail for a long time. Then he started growing marijuana and he had a lot of money from that for quite a while there. Then in 2005 he quit marijuana gardening. He lived near us. His living conditions were unstable. At times he lived near us, at other times he lived out in the woods. Much of the time, I didn't know what he was doing. Then he hired some people to dig him a basement under the cabin the family owned that Aaron was living in. He would never let me in there. The only way I would ever get in is if I snuck in there when he wasn't there. I would check periodically just to see that he wasn't growing marijuana. He slept down there in that basement with a little desk and a mattress. What he was hiding from at night, I don't know. He was really paranoid. He did artwork about weapons systems. He drew detailed maps. This was not from methamphetamine, but it was all way off, though. You could tell it was mental illness. Maybe drugs messed him up, but he was paranoid schizophrenic, but he did not have the audio part of it where he heard voices as far as I know.
AVA: How was he physically? What kind of shape was he in?
MR. BASSLER: He was in good shape. That's why he was so good out in the woods. He worked out early on in the gym. Later on he set up punching bags and he tried to stay fit. Even out in the woods he was running up and down the hillside for exercise. The Fish and Game people who saw him out there told me they had no idea what he was doing.
AVA: Any signs of mental illness in Aaron's childhood?
MR. BASSLER: He was very shy when he was young, but there was nothing wrong with him. He played sports and did what other kids did. But then when he was in his later high school years something started to go wrong. He would never tell me when his games were so I never got to see him play.
AVA: Do you know why he was up in the Rockport area where he fatally encountered Matt Coleman?
MR. BASSLER: We had been told by Fish and Game that he spent time in the Usal area. I know that his mother took him to Westport. I wasn't sure where he went from there. I suspected at first that he went up there for some kind of drug connection. The only people he knew in the last few years were people that he had some kind of drug connection with. Another time when he got a ride to the Usal area he said that he wanted to be there because there was no one else there. He was afraid to deal with most people. He wouldn't talk to people he didn't know.
AVA: By the time he met Coleman, Aaron was in very bad mental shape?
MR. BASSLER: I know how ready he was to snap off at any moment. It didn't take much. Any kind of authority figure who told him he didn't belong there could make him snap.
AVA: Do you think he recognized Jere Melo?
MR. BASSLER: It's hard to say. I don't know if they ever made contact before. People in the past had tried to get him out of that area. According to that eyewitness account from the man with Melo, Aaron jumped up out of a blind area and started shooting. I heard that he yelled "FBI" as he fired.
AVA: By that time he was even estranged from family members?
MR. BASSLER: I have to say that I finally gave up. I couldn't take it anymore. I had to care about the rest of my family. I knew something was going to happen. They call it mentally ill, but people can't understand what it's really like unless they've been through it. People don't understand how difficult it is to deal with someone who is becoming violent. You have no idea what's going on in their head. The not-knowing what the hell is going to happen is the worst part. If he's angry, what the hell is going to happen? I tried to get help and no one would help me. I couldn't keep him around here. I knew he was going to get worse. Looking back, I can see how it happened.
AVA: Mendocino County has very little in the way of mental health services for even non-threatening people…
MR. BASSLER: That's why we need Laura's Law. It really has to do with public safety. You don't have to care about the mentally ill, I guess, but you should care about the people around you. There should be a mechanism that identifies people who are dangerous who are clearly getting worse and are more removed from reality. The County was in the dark about Aaron. There was no way for anybody to intervene. Laura's Law would have given me a chance, a good chance to bring Aaron out into the light. He may have qualified and there would have been an investigation. It wouldn't have taken much. At least they would have known where he was and that he had a problem. And when the murder happened, the first murder, he would have been the first person they looked at. He would have been the prime suspect right off. The sheriff would have had the information.
AVA: How are you and the family holding up?
MR. BASSLER: I've been treated very well by people in Fort Bragg. But it's a horrible experience in every other respect, more than terrible and it will be with us forever. I tried to do my best. I wasn't ignoring the problem.
AVA: Was there anyone who he would listen to in the last couple of years?
MR. BASSLER: He would listen to me at times. But if we had had Laura's Law it would have allowed the community to get involved and take the cover off the secrecy of these problems. I'm going after that Law with everything I have. Why is it only in one county? (Nevada County) If they can afford it, why can't we? The money should come out of the millionaire's tax. It's just what people like Aaron need. You need a buy-in from the judges. But I believe people will want it as much as I do once they understand it. There's a difference between the mentally ill who are not dangerous and those who are dangerous. Now, it's just locked up or loose. Then they're off their meds and here we go again. There has to be another option. Laura's Law would provide that option. We could have done something. It didn't have to be this bad. Aaron might not have ever functioned too well if he'd lived, but it didn't have to come to this. I know there are other kids out there who are dangerous. Maybe not exactly like Aaron, but we can do better than this for them.