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by Mark Scaramella, January 8, 2013
The 12-day search for John Wilkes Booth was simpler than the hunt for Aaron Bassler, presumed killer of conservationist Matt Coleman and Fort Bragg City councilman and timberland security agent Jere Melo.
Booth, having shot Lincoln, was trying to evade his pursuers. Bassler was hunting his.
It was a tense August in Fort Bragg that summer of 2011. Coleman had been shot to death for no reason anybody, let alone the police, could fathom, then he ambushed Melo and became the presumptive killer of Coleman, too.
Bassler was in excellent physical condition. He ranged from the Skunk Line to Four Corners in Southern Humboldt, and east as far as the outskirts of Willits. And he was armed, and he was crazy. He wouldn't be easy to bring in.
“Out There In The Woods,” by Anderson Valley writer Steve Sparks and Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman carry the reader along on a fascinating, front-to-back insider's account of the biggest manhunt in Northcoast history.
“I hate the word manhunt,” Mendocino Sheriff’s Captain Kurt Smallcomb told reporters three weeks into the search for Bassler. “It sounds like we're out to kill the guy … The goal is for no one else to get hurt, to get the guy safely into custody and get him into court, and let the evidence speak for itself.”
For a few days after Smallcomb’s denunciation of the word “manhunt,” and just after the police knew who they were looking for, the Northcoast's daily papers, thumbing their thesauruses in vain for a suitable single-word euphemism, finally came up “multi-departmental search team.” One might have thought an insurance company was looking for a lost file.
But then came the first contact between the “multi-departmental search team” and Bassler.
Allman: “While cutting branches to hide the car, through the bushes, Sergeant Wilhelm, Alameda SWAT team leader, saw a man he was immediately able to positively identify as Aaron Bassler, wearing all black clothing, walking very fast, and carrying what appeared to be an assault-type rifle. The sergeant had no radio and no rifle, just a handgun, which is not a ‘tactical weapon.’ As a result he chose to not engage the suspect. He waited until Bassler had gone on about 50 yards and then began to follow, moving from tree to tree, keeping a visual on Bassler all the time.”
“As Sgt. Wilhelm stealthily tried to close the gap to get within pistol range, Bassler apparently sensed something was wrong, turned and looked directly at Sgt. Wilhelm. Sgt. Wilhelm repeatedly yelled, ‘Sheriff’s Office, get on the ground.’ Bassler raised his rifle and fired at Sgt. Wilhelm. In response, Sgt. Wilhelm dropped to a crouch, fired 8 rounds, and quickly moved into the brush for cover. Likewise, Bassler moved into the woods for apparent cover. Upon hearing at a distance Sgt. Wilhelm’s commands being directed at Bassler, his SWAT team partners, Deputies Poole and Shannon, moved in that direction, with Deputy Shannon eventually bringing Sgt. Wilhelm his rifle. Sgt. Wilhelm saw Bassler come back up to the road, where it appeared to Sgt. Wilhelm that Bassler was trying to assume a tactical fighting position. At that time, more rounds were fired in Bassler’s direction. In the hope of creating a perimeter, the discovery and engagement of Bassler was also transmitted over the air to all available teams. Not knowing how fast reinforcements would arrive, the three-man team formed a strategic 360-degree cover for one another.
“After the brief exchange with the sergeant, Bassler had jumped over a log at the side of the road and disappeared into the dense brush. All three members of the [Alameda] SWAT team went to the side of the road and listened. Nothing was heard. They thought Bassler might have been hit. It was completely silent, no sound of someone moving through the brush. Ten minutes passed, still nothing, no leaves, twigs, or brush being disturbed. Then suddenly, from their right, shots rang out and they were under fire. They returned fire towards where the shots came from. The shooting stopped immediately and Bassler fled [into] the brush once again. He had flanked around them, creeping silently through the woods and they had not heard a thing.”
This dramatic encounter became a turning point — a “game changer,” as the cops termed it. It was clear that Bassler would not go peacefully. Call the hunt for the deranged mountain man what you will, it was now a classic manhunt. And the likelihood that Bassler would not be taken alive went way up.
The typical modern manhunt involves setting a perimeter and roadblocks, patrols and checkpoints, dogs, new technologies consisting of listening devices, cameras, imaging systems, special weapons, and what the CIA calls “human intelligence.”
All manner of these modern search mechanisms were deployed against Bassler, but human intelligence was deficient because no one knew exactly what kind of killer they were looking for. Bassler had several advantages over your average fugitive: intimate knowledge of the terrain (a very large and difficult terrain to boot), the cops knew very little about his history, skills, or capabilities; he was in excellent physical condition, meaning he could travel miles on foot in a very short time, and he had already proven that he was a killer, meaning that his pursuers weren't about to walk down old logging trails with a bullhorn inviting the guy to dialog.
Bassler was also assumed to be mentally ill, a kind of self-induced psychosis, probably by methamphetamine. The psychosis, whatever its origins, meant the fugitive's behavior would be even harder to predict than that of a more or less rational man on the run. The more or less rational man on the run would be trying to get away, not hoping to stick around to get the drop on the people pursuing him.
The hunt went on, and to describe it here further would give away too much of Allman's and Sparks' riveting account.
Sparks' and Allman's meticulous account begins with the inexplicable murder of Matt Coleman and continues through the murder of Fort Bragg Councilman Jere Melo, and on through the 36-day search “out there in the woods” for an “armed and dangerous” man.
“Out There In The Woods” draws much of its information from Sheriff Allman who oversaw the multi-agency effort to bring Bassler in.
The sprightly narrative is supplemented by an impressive selection of additional material: The DA’s final report and an extended discussion of Laura’s Law, which some people still believe could prevent another Bassler-type tragedy as others dispute its applicability because Laura's Law requires a degree of cooperation from the crazed individual it is designed to help. There are interviews with Aaron Bassler’s devastated father, James Bassler, the Sheriff’s chief of detectives Lt. Greg van Patten, and Robert Pinoli of the Skunk Train which runs through the territory where many of the events took place. Pinoli volunteered the Skunk to the complicated logistics of the Bassler affair, never hesitating to put the railroad at the service of the authorities.
There’s also a chapter titled “Blame and Responsibility” which many writers probably would have preferred to avoid, but which Sparks and Allman (and others) plunge right into.
Not only was the manhunt for Aaron Bassler unprecedented in many ways, but so is “Out There In The Woods,” the kind of comprehensive, detailed and multi-faceted account that you usually get from historians decades after the fact.
(See Valley People for availability and upcoming local appearances by the authors.)