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Grief, questions linger in Mendocino killings

On Friday Aug. 17, 2012, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman explores an area believed to be where Jere Melo parked his vehicle, encountered and subsequently was shot and killed by Aaron Bassler last year, which sparked a month-long manhunt in the woods near Fort Bragg.

(Kent Porter / Press Democrat)
Published: Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 2:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, September 1, 2012 at 4:20 p.m.

Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman, sitting in a back office of his Fort Bragg outpost that a year ago was the nerve center of a grinding manhunt for a deranged killer, acknowledged that he still keeps two lists from that five-week ordeal.

Facts

WAYS TO FIGHT BACK

Jere Melo Foundation:
www.jeremelo.org

Matthew Coleman Fund for Environmental Conservation and Education:
www.communityfound.org

On one, he tallies the things that might have brought a swifter end to the unprecedented backwoods search for Aaron Bassler, 35, the Fort Bragg native who had ambushed two well-known North Coast men.

The other is a list of questions he never will be able to ask Bassler, who was killed by snipers after 36 days of eluding capture in the rugged forest east of town. Bassler's indecipherable motives left behind great loss but no answers.

The killings and all-consuming search closed vast swaths of the woods to the public, filled the communities with a sense of dread and dampened a local economy that depends on timber and tourism.

One year later, as the sheriff looks back at what-might-have-beens, the Mendocino Coast outwardly forges ahead. Summer camps reopened on schedule. Hunters again ventured out. The historic Skunk Train that last year transported deputies and supplies into the back country where Bassler was on the run, has returned to its routine of chugging through town with a cargo of tourists.

Yet the shooting deaths of Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo, 69, on Aug. 27, 2011, and Mendocino Land Trust land manager Matthew Coleman, 42, on Aug. 11, 2011, still weigh on the communities where they lived and worked.

The coast is populated by resilient people, yet the underlying psychological recovery is slow.

“You know how you feel as you are just getting over a bad flu? You know you are on the mend, but boy, does your body hurt,” said Robert Pinoli, manager of the Skunk Train, seated in his wood-paneled office at the train depot.

Not far away, the bells on the First Baptist Church in central Fort Bragg ring through the fresh salty air and the sound mixes with the lilt of a guitarist playing at the North Franklin Street farmers market in front of City Hall.

“I can't believe it has been a year,” said Angela Liebenberg, 36, a state park biologist who was selling lettuces, herbs and green onions at a table.

And several blocks from downtown in a tidy kitchen, Madeleine Melo places her hand on the worn leather gloves worn by her husband, Jere Melo.

The gloves now lay near the head of the kitchen table among flowers, medals, a well-used ax, two American flags and other mementos of her husband's life.

“I rode in the woods with him, just to spend time with him,” Madeleine Melo said, recounting the evenings when she would join him on his end-of-day rounds closing timber road gates. “He was passionate about so many issues. He loved being a city councilman. He loved to solve problems. He loved being in the woods.”

Grief is unrelenting for those close to the victims of Bassler's killings. One year later, they are following in the paths set by these men, who left indelible marks on the Mendocino Coast.

Melo, a longtime forester and former mayor with 16 years on the council, made his living patrolling private timber land, tracking down evidence of land poaching and illegal marijuana gardens.

Coleman, an East Coast native, made his home in Albion and created his life's work in restoring native habitat.

Both were working in remote areas when they were killed. The slayings were not immediately linked. It was a week ago Sunday, Sept. 2, with the search for Bassler in its first week, that Allman drove the papers from Fort Bragg to a Ukiah judge to secure an arrest warrant. Bassler was charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

Now, with the announcement two weeks ago by the Mendocino County District Attorney's Office that the shooting death of Bassler was justified, the case is essentially closed. But for Allman, the questions haven't stopped.

On a recent day, Allman retraced Melo's last steps from where he parked on a timber haul road and hiked in to look for Bassler, who he knew was squatting on private timber land. Melo was shot to death near an opium poppy plot that Bassler was tending.

“What was the meaning of the eight of spades?” said Allman, referring to the 16-card deck Bassler carried, all the same card.

As the days went by without signs of Bassler, Allman found himself welcoming tips from psychics, including such cryptic hints such as: you will find him near a large body of water.

“We were not dealing with a rational, two-plus-two kind of guy,” Allman said.

As the sheriff walked, he ran through the list that nags him.

Where did Bassler sleep in the dense forest clogged with thickets, poison oak and spiders as troops of officers searched for him? What was meaning of the odd symbol that Bassler scratched into trees and dirt, or laid out in pebbles?

Why did he kill two men?

“My biggest question I want to ask him, if he was in his rational mind, is there anything we could have done to peacefully end this?” Allman said.

Two signs greet visitors to Madeleine Melo's home. One, a wood-carved sign announcing “Camp Jere.”

The other is one she typed and printed during the excruciating search for her husband's killer:

“If you use any drug and/or tolerate those that do, you are not welcome here — go away. Say no to drugs. Shout hell no.”

For Madeleine Melo, her husband's death is a symbol of criminals who have invaded the woods, endangering forest workers, and she is determined to fight back.

“In this town people tell their children to stay out of the woods,” Madeleine Melo said. “It used to be the gates were open on the logging roads.”

In 1982, she bought a yellow house on a Fort Bragg cul-de-sac. Jere Melo lived across the street.

“My dad would bring him over to help fix stuff; I was always apologizing profusely,” she said.

They married in 1987, celebrating with barbecued salmon. They were known to hold hands nearly everywhere they went.

“He was the best, he was the love of my life,” she said.

Bassler, 35, grew up playing in Fort Bragg's woods. As an adult, he grew increasingly reclusive and for long stretches lived in the forest. He had a deal with his parents to check in every two weeks.

On the day he was killed, Melo was investigating reports that Bassler was squatting on private timberland. Melo set out with resident Ian Chaney, whose family lived nearby.

They came upon a bunker Bassler constructed with wood and barbed wire. He was growing potted opium poppies in flats on a terraced hillside.

Bassler fired at both men. Melo was killed. Chaney escaped.

Bassler's motives were perhaps driven by paranoia and mental illness, but Madeleine Melo has channeled her anger toward what she sees as the most common human threat to forest workers, and the reason her husband patrolled the woods: illegal marijuana growers.

“I will do anything, anything, to make sure this never happens again,” she said.

Those were the same words she used when, after Bassler was killed, she walked into the office of Steve Horner, her husband's boss and area manager of Campbell Timberland Management.

What emerged was the Jere Melo Foundation, a nonprofit run by Melo's wife, co-workers and friends. The goal is to spread the word about the environmental pollution and violence that accompany illegal marijuana gardens, particularly those where growers have trespassed onto public and private lands.

“I felt passionate that no others should feel that threat,” she said.

Logging remains one of the most dangerous professions, and the risks are compounded by land poachers, said Horner, standing under the redwoods and fir of Otis R. Johnson Wilderness Park, a city park Melo helped establish.

“Imagine, every day we go out into the woods, a lot of times working at night for wildlife surveys,” Horner said. “We know the threat is there. And we encounter it. The threat is constant.”

Families living on the outskirts of Fort Bragg and in remote parts of the forest were acutely aware of the search for Bassler. Among them was Matthew Tarnuff, 33, who with his wife and three children, at the time age 3, 5 and 8, were living on a Pudding Creek-area farm on the edge of the forest.

From behind his vegetable stand at the Fort Bragg market, Tarnuff recounted the day last year when the family decided to temporarily move to a safer location.

A helicopter was circling nearby as officers in heavy camouflage tramped through the property and into the forest. “Seeing (Bassler's) picture everywhere, all of the officers coming on our land ... Whenever we heard the helicopter it was like a Pavlovian response, your spine starts to tingle,” Tarnuff said.

The family lived with friends for three weeks, returning once the search ended. They now live on the other side of town.

During the search for Bassler, Liebenberg, the state parks biologist, said she and her colleagues suspended activities that put wildlife volunteers in remote areas, such as the annual summertime shorebird surveys at Ten Mile Dunes beach.

Across the aisle at the market, volunteers with the Mendocino Coast Chamber of Commerce handed out cups of apple cider.

“This hit two diverse communities,” said Maggie Watson, 54, of Little River, who works for a solar installation company, Mendocino Solar Service, and is a member of the chamber.

Both Melo and Coleman were stewards of the land, one through his career in timber and civic work and the other through his work for environmental conservation.

Coleman is memorialized 10 miles down the coast from Fort Bragg with a solid redwood bench installed on a high bluff above the Big River estuary. The stunning view takes in the essence of Coleman's life on the coast, where for years he surveyed shore birds and salmon, removed invasive plants and worked to allow a native ecosystem to thrive.

His photographs of harbor seals on the Noyo and Navarro rivers, a damsel fly and American Goldfinch are on display in the heart of Mendocino village at Frankie's pizza and ice cream parlor on Ukiah Street.

“After Matt died, it has been difficult,” said Michael Miller, Big River program manager with the Mendocino Land Trust, and a friend. The work felt grueling without Coleman.

But a 23-year-old Central Valley intern has brought fresh life to the office, his position funded by the newly formed Matthew Coleman Fund for Environmental Conservation and Education, Miller said. The intern has spent the summer surveying the wildlife Coleman tracked, conducting invasive plant removal events where Coleman worked.

“When Matt died, the thing that echoed in my head — what he would want — is to do the work, continue the work,” Miller said.

In Fort Bragg, Melo's likeness is carved in redwood in the Town Hall on Main Street. The sculpture of the forester, with his characteristic smile and hard hat, stands behind the council table.

On Aug. 13, the council honored Chaney for his bravery during the confrontation that cost Melo his life. Chaney shot back at Bassler and ran, scrambling down hill to the rail line and flagging down an auxiliary car. He led law enforcement to Melo's body and provided the witness account that allowed investigators to link Bassler to both killings.

Chaney has not spoken publicly, most recently declining comment through a person who answered his phone.

Work also continues for James Bassler, Aaron Bassler's father. The Fort Bragg fisherman has found himself thrust into the public discussion over his son's apparent mental illness.

“It has changed me,” James Bassler said. “I'm involved in a lot of politics now, which is not what I want to do with my life, but I feel compelled to be politically involved with some sort of change.”

Now a member of the Mendocino County Mental Health Board, he has been outspoken about the lack of ways for families and agencies to help the mentally ill who do not seek help on their own.

“The most dangerous mentally ill aren't the ones walking around, homeless and talking out loud,” James Bassler said. “It's the ones who keep that mental illness inside.”

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

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