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D.A.: Snipers justified in Bassler shooting death

Aaron Bassler

MENDOCINO COUNTY SHERIFF'S OFFICE
Published: Tuesday, August 14, 2012 at 1:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, August 15, 2012 at 7:12 a.m.

Snipers from the Sacramento County Sheriff's Office acted appropriately when they killed Aaron Bassler, bringing to a close a prolonged manhunt in the woods east of Fort Bragg, Mendocino County district attorney's officials announced Tuesday.

The finding comes a year after Bassler gunned down land steward Matthew Coleman of Albion and Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo in separate ambushes.

The three Sacramento snipers who ambushed Bassler joined the manhunt on its 36th day.

Wearing camouflage, they were hiding in brush above an old logging road when Bassler seemed to "explode out of the gulch," according to the district attorney's 14-page report. His rifle was at the ready, officials said.

Without warning, the team fired 12 shots at Bassler, striking him seven times.

After a 10-month investigation into the shooting, District Attorney David Eyster said his office determined the snipers' actions were justified because Bassler had previously demonstrated he would fire without warning at law enforcement officers and other authority figures.

He called the deputies' actions "by the book."

"I think they were well briefed. I think they had a very difficult job and they did it in a very professional manner," Eyster said. "At the very end, you have to give the officers the right to defend themselves, which they did."

The report identified the sniper team members only by their last names, but Sacramento Sheriff Scott Jones on Tuesday gave their full names: Deputies Matt Owens, Brian Prehoda and Chuck Esty.

They were among 23 SWAT members sent to aid the search the day after Bassler came upon and fired at deputies from the Alameda County Sheriff's Office. During that encounter, a deputy called for Bassler to surrender. Bassler fired at him and the others, flanked them and fired again before disappearing.

New details never before made public about the Coleman and Melo killings, which took place 16 days and about 25 miles apart on the Mendocino Coast, put into focus a picture of Bassler as a disturbed man determined to gun down perceived adversaries.

Prosecutors in September during the early phases of the manhunt charged Bassler with the two slayings.

According to the report, Bassler stood on Melo's body as he continued to fire at Melo's companion, Ian Chaney, as the man fled for his life.

The report also is critical of Bassler's family, noting that his mother knew but did not tell authorities that her son was in the remote area where Coleman was killed.

However, Eyster said there was no criminal misconduct on her part. "There is no affirmative duty to report these things because she really didn't know," Eyster said.

Bassler's mother, Laura Brickey, did not return a phone call Tuesday seeking comment.

Bassler's father, James Bassler, had encouraged Brickey to report her concerns and during the search was outspoken about his suspicions that his son was mentally ill. On Tuesday, Bassler said Brickey simply "couldn't believe her son could do that."

James Bassler had not seen the district attorney's report, but said he did not expect to have major problems with its findings that the shooting was justified.

"I know the circumstances were tough," Bassler said of those searching for his son. "They were afraid of him; they didn't want to give him a chance."

"They didn't have too much choice," he said.

Melo's son, Greg Melo, 42, of Coos Bay, Ore., said that holding a funeral service under armed guard because Bassler was still at large was "traumatic."

"I can't express enough how grateful I was that they stepped in and put an end to it," he said. "It was a month and a half of nightmares. I'd wake up every day and think, 'Oh god, this has happened.' "

Coleman, 42, a staffer with the Mendocino County Land Trust, was killed Aug. 11, 2011, on a remote ranch near Rockport about 24 miles north of Fort Bragg.

Investigators came upon a chilling scene, according to the district attorney's report.

Coleman had been shot at fairly close range, which sheriff's officials estimated to be about 30 feet. His body had come to rest halfway out of his truck, as if he had tried to shield himself during the attack.

He was shot in the lower abdomen and right arm by a high-powered rifle.

Feces had been deposited on his body.

Investigators later concluded Bassler "deposited his diarrheic feces on the deceased's remains post-mortem. It is believed by the prosecutor's office that this conduct by Bassler is indicative of some combination of an after-death demonstration of territorial or physical dominance, contempt of authority, and lack of remorse," according to the report.

DNA tests were not done because diarrhea does not provide an adequate sample, Eyster said. No shell casings were left behind and for more than two weeks, authorities had no suspect and few clues.

A week after Coleman was killed, members of a volunteer search team combing the area found crucial evidence that eventually linked Bassler to the site: an aluminum-foil pipe and foil from Hershey's Chocolate Kisses.

Later, both of those items also were found at the site of Melo's killing. The pipes had DNA linked to Bassler.

"Mr. Bassler apparently was careful enough to pick up his expended rounds, but he left things that he didn't think were very important," Eyster said. "That doesn't sound that crazy; that's covering your tracks."

Coleman's longtime girlfriend, Sue Coulter, said details about the killings were "too ugly to focus on." She said she blocked out the news as the search dragged on. She drove herself nearly crazy wishing Coleman had been late that day or had a different site.

"Matt was an amazing individual and because of one person's ridiculous actions, people's lives have been changed," Coulter said. "I am really sad for the world that we don't continue to have Matt in it; it was a better place."

Bassler was not a suspect in Coleman's death until Melo's killing on Aug. 26.

Melo, 69, provided private security for Campbell Timberland Management and was investigating reports Bassler was growing opium poppies on timberland.

He and Chaney, who lived on adjacent property, followed an irrigation line and were examining a makeshift bunker protected by barbed wire when they heard the crackling of leaves, Chaney told investigators.

They turned around and saw Bassler about 10 feet away on higher ground.

"Hey, what the --- are you doing over there?" Melo said, according to Chaney's account.

"FBI," Bassler said, and opened fire with a semi-automatic assault-style rifle.

Bassler killed Melo with a single shot to his back. Three additional bullets grazed Melo's back, head and right foot, according to the report.

Chaney hid behind the bunker and fired back with a 9 mm pistol. He believed he hit Bassler, who appeared to be wearing a bullet-proof vest, the report said.

Bassler continued firing as Chaney fled. Chaney waved down a Skunk Train inspection rail car and escaped.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com.

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