Three law enforcement officers hunting for a well-armed fugitive in dense woods near Fort Bragg came under fire from the suspect on Thursday and exchanged several shots with him before he escaped into the wilderness again, authorities said.
Aaron Bassler, 35, is suspected in the August shooting deaths of a Fort Bragg city councilman and another man. Law enforcement officers from around the state have been searching for him for 34 days, but Thursday's incident was the first time he's been spotted since early September.
The officers, who are Alameda County deputies and members of a special operations group trained for such searches, were in a forested area near the unincorporated town of Northspur, about 14 miles east of Fort Bragg, when someone shot at them a little before noon, said Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allmon in a news conference Thursday night.
The deputies identified the person shooting at them as Bassler, who was about 100 yards away and wearing all black, Allmon said.
The deputies returned fire, and the suspect ran away. A few minutes later, the same deputies came under fire again, from a different location, Allmon said. They again shot back, and the suspect ran and disappeared.
"The brush is very heavy, and very dense, and the fact that they lost sight of him is not a surprise," Allmon said. "We're reinitiating a very high-intensity search in this area."
None of the deputies was injured. Allmon said he didn't know if the suspect had been injured.
Bassler, a gun enthusiast with survivalist skills and a long history of small-time crime, is believed to have been living off the land in the rugged hills outside Fort Bragg since March. His family has said he suffers from an undiagnosed mental illness.
Authorities suspect Bassler in the deaths of Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo, 69, who was shot while investigating a marijuana farm as part of a security check for Campbell Timber Management on Aug. 27, and land manager Matthew Coleman, who was killed 16 days earlier in the hills 20 miles north of Fort Bragg. Both men were shot with high-powered rifles.
After Thursday's incident, authorities believe they've surrounded Bassler near Northspur, Allmon said.
Fingerprints removed from a home and three vacation cabins in Northspur suggested Bassler had broken into the dwellings and apparently stolen a 12-gauge shotgun and .22-caliber rifle from one of the residences, authorities said. They also released a surveillance photo of Bassler that showed him clutching an assault rifle. Bassler's father, James Bassler, said Thursday that authorities had told him they were devoting more officers to the area and were closing in.
"They're getting real close," Bassler said. "We're just hoping this ends peacefully and no one gets hurt."
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