Former mayor and long-time Fort Bragg City councilman Jere Melo was shot to death last Saturday morning about four miles east of Fort Bragg. Melo died instantly from what police subsequently described as “numerous gunshots from a high powered rifle.” An as-yet unidentified armed man accompanying Melo returned fire before the gunman disappeared into the dense undergrowth above the Skunk Railroad tracks. Melo's friend scrambled down to the Skunk tracks where he flagged down the “speeder car,” an all-purpose service vehicle that follows the Skunk train to extinguish sparks thrown off the track by the train. The speeder car returned Melo's shocked companion to the Skunk Depot in Fort Bragg where he summoned police.
Melo had reportedly made it known to law enforcement on Friday that he knew a troubled man named Aaron Bassler was growing either marijuana or opium poppies or both on the timberland Melo supervised for Campbell Timber Management. Melo, unarmed, but accompanied by the younger friend who was armed, had driven out to the vicinity of Bassler's trespass grow on Saturday morning with an apparent view to marking the garden for the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department to eradicate.
The presumed shooter, Aaron Bassler, 35, has a lengthy criminal history, including a number of 5150 citations, police code for persons judged to be a danger to themselves or others because of mental illness.
A native of Fort Bragg, Bassler has ten arrests in Mendocino County beginning in 1994 when he was 18. He also has at least one federal misdemeanor conviction from a 2009 incident in San Francisco when he was apprehended after four bizarre attacks on the Chinese Consul's offices at Geary and Laguna. Bassler had thrown parcels resembling small bombs onto the Consulate's property. Each time a bomb squad was summoned to disarm what turned out to be packages containing incoherent claims alleging Chinese military designs on the United States.
Bassler's parents, from whom he is estranged, are separated but live in the Fort Bragg area.
Earlier this year Bassler, driving at night under the influence of alcohol and methamphetamine, crashed his pick-up truck into the tennis courts at the Fort Bragg Middle School. Fort Bragg police subdued Bassler but not before he'd proved impervious to pepper spray and the police had deployed a taser device to stun him into submission.
Each of these unhinged incidents represented an escalating recklessness and a clear hazard to whatever community Bassler was living in, although each was adjudicated as a misdemeanor. Bassler, clearly in deteriorating mental health, would serve a few days in county jails in San Francisco and Mendocino County before he was granted probation; only in San Francisco did he undergo mandated mental health counseling.
Immediately after the first reports of Saturday's shooting, the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department dispatched a large number of heavily armed deputies to the area where Melo had fallen. Because Bassler was armed and also was assumed to be established several hundred yards above the site where he'd shot Melo, responding officers were forced to move into the area with the greatest caution. It took them some time to locate then retrieve Melo's remains as the shocking news of the popular councilman's murder reverberated up and down the Mendocino Coast.
As of Tuesday, Bassler remained at large.
Three weeks ago, the shooting death of another timberland manager, Matt Coleman of Albion, had shocked residents of the Mendocino Coast. Coleman, 45, was found dead by his vehicle near Rockport, not far up the Coast from where Melo was shot to death Saturday. Coleman's death remains under investigation. Ballistics tests will reveal if the murders are related.
It is widely assumed that Coleman's murder occurred when he encountered a person or persons involved in the thriving and ubiquitous Northcoast drug trade.
Eric Grant of the Mendocino Redwood Company remains missing, His vehicle was found last year at a turnout on Highway One where Grant was known to enjoy his lunch breaks. He had been working on MRC property on Navarro Ridge Road just before he disappeared. His remains have not been found.
A fit, vigorous man of 69, Melo was employed by Campbell Timber Management, owner of much of what was once Georgia-Pacific timber land running east and north of Fort Bragg. Melo was born in Mount Shasta. He spent his professional life as a Fort Bragg-based forester for Georgia-Pacific. He'd lived in Fort Bragg since 1966 where he was active in civic affairs. He served two terms as mayor of the seaside town of 8,000 people and was an Army veteran.
At the Fort Bragg end of the Skunk line the tracks double as a path to town for the homeless camps long entrenched between the Fort Bragg Cemetery and the train tunnel. It is assumed that the tracks served as Bassler's re-supply route between his opium poppy garden and Fort Bragg.
Mendocino County at marijuana harvest time is always tense, but this season has been especially violent and the tension is greater than ever. Growers are armed against the numerous pot thieves, also armed, who prey on the valuable ripening cannabis, and many areas of the County become no-go zones to ordinary citizens as trespass grows become harvest-time armed camps.
And then there are the lone wolves, the Aaron Basslers, armed and dangerous, about whom his own father says he keeps a handgun on his nightstand. James Bassler also said Monday he'd unsuccessfully sought mental health services for his son who, Mr. Bassler said, exhibited no signs of mental illness until he began using drugs at about age 18.
Services for Jere Melo are scheduled for Saturday, September 10th, 2pm at Timberwolf Stadium, Fort Bragg.
A Fort Bragg resident posted this assessment of the weekend's events: “You're on vacation on the Coast, going for a nice ride on the Historic Skunk Train, and just before you go through the tunnel into the warm country, you hear 7 or 8 shots, then some guy comes running toward the train to flag it down saying someone has been shot. Train can't go back to Fort Bragg through the woods because the shooter is still around somewhere. So halfway between Fort Bragg and Willits, Mendocino Transit Authority buses pick up the passengers and take them back to the Coast over Highway 20. End of pleasant rejuvenating vacation. What's this going to do for the reputation of this area? There's no more fishing or logging, and tourism is the supposed cure-all, except that the real industry up here is pot, with these kinds of tragic fallout…”
Click here to read Dan Gjerde's letter on the death of Jere Melo.
Thank you so much for writing this.
My heart goes out to the victims and the friends and families of the victims and the family of the perpetrator and his family. It is a great tragedy for our community and more largely- for our society.
I spent a lot of time with Aaron Basslar when I was in grade school because his sister was my best friend. He has been troubled for a long time.
As I have been following this story, I keep thinking how this could have played out differently. This is the type of thing that happens when there is no support for people with mental health issues. I am not saying they are blameless, but surely this could have gone differently.
I am gravely concerned about the violence, here and elsewhere. Someone help me understand what we can do to help the people who are ill seek treatment before they hurt themselves and others.
Dear Jessica…..One thing that could help individuals like Aaron before they hurt themselves or others is a California law known as Laura’s Law. Under Laura’s Law a person with severe mental illness who recylces through hospital or jail can be court ordered to receive intensive community case management and treatment, including medication supervision. Laura’s Law commits the mental health system to actually give that very intensive community treatment and supervision so they do not deteroriate to the point of danger. I am praying with all of Mendocino County. I also pray Mendocino will implement this vital law—it requires a board of supervisors resolution–so future tragedies are less likely to rock your community.
Yeah, Fort Bragg misses its fishermen and loggers, but the “underground” economy has and always will be illicit substances.
While the underground economy is pot, meth and opium, the above-ground economy which thrives on this kind of stuff- Law Enforcement doesn’t want to see the growers and cooks go away they need that to justify their budgets.
Simplistic and emotional response Kyle. I do agree that “illicit” substances employ many former fisherman, loggers and others who don’t share the mental issues that Mr. Basslar seems to have. But ten years ago when I moved to mendocino one could clearly see the limitations of employment and the isolation of the inhabitants. So if you want to live in “paradise” you take the good with the bad or move to another location
Thankyou for share wxactly the truth of whats happened and whats currently happening to find this murderer. This is so sad and worriesome…..What is going to happen to Fort Bragg now that all the tragedies are occuring up and down our coast? Will they stop the Skunk Train Business? Will every person that want to get married, vacation or want to fish and see the whales stop coming altogether? No matter what, I’m not leaving where I live as long as I’m able to remain at my home. Why do La Enforcement need the growers and cooks. I guess I’m nieve when it comes to corruption and dihonesty among those who are here to honor and protect us. I want to feel safe and live without carrying a bat or crowbar or whatever……to protect myself…
My prayers are being said for the Melo family, friends and relatives and for all of Fort Bragg; and for all of our coastal communities up and down our coast that have seen tragedy and violence and who need prayer for comfort and healing….Love to all….<3