A view into a redwood forest in Mendocino County. Photo: kylewm
Police manhunts are daily occurrences throughout America and most rarely ever make the local news. Once in a while, there's a manhunt worthy of our attention. One such manhunt—the most wide-ranging ever on California's North Coast—lasted five days in Mendocino County.
Mendocino County is a three-hour drive north of San Francisco; it's nestled between the rugged Pacific Ocean and spectacular redwood forests, making "Mendo" a popular tourist destination. Mendocino County covers 3,878 square miles with a sparse population of only 87,841 residents.
Much of Mendocino County is isolated, dense, rugged, forested, mountainous terrain. There are a number of large state parks and forests, and also the gigantic Mendocino National Forest, whose 913,306 acres span six California counties, covering an area larger than Rhode Island.
Mendocino County is also widely known for growing marijuana. In recent years, there's been a marked increase in confrontations with armed guards protecting marijuana grows. In response, every year, law enforcement conducts large-scale eradication operations, resulting in substantial arrests and seizures.
This summer's eradication was the largest to date—it spearheaded by Mendocino County Sheriff's Office—and involved officers and SWAT teams from multiple local, state and federal agencies. During the two-week eradication operation, officers seized an astounding 460,000 marijuana plants, 1,500 pounds of processed marijuana, 27 guns, 11 vehicles, and many additional items. Officers made more than 100 arrests.
On Aug. 27, popular Ft. Bragg Councilman Jere Melo was patrolling with a private timberland near his city for marijuana grows with a partner. The men suddenly came under high-powered rifle fire, which killed Melo. His partner survived and summoned authorities.
The ensuing, massive manhunt was hindered substantially by the dense, forested, rugged terrain. As the manhunt continued, investigators learned that suspect Aaron Bassler, 35, was also involved in the unprovoked Aug. 12 murder of Mathew Coleman, Mendocino's land trust manager. Bassler was also identified as a possible suspect in the unsolved 2004 murders of a vacationing couple on a beach in nearby Jenner.
Bassler is well known to law enforcement, having been arrested for DUI and resisting in February when he smashed his pickup truck into a tennis court. He was also arrested in 2009 for throwing "fake bombs" into the Chinese Embassy in San Francisco, which prompted a psychiatric evaluation.
According to his father, Bassler's mental troubles, which began when he was 18, include a fixation with aliens, spacecraft, and red stars. And he may have thought he was "battling Martians."
Between 30 and 50 local, state, and federal officers participated in the intense manhunt, including MCSO SWAT, U.S. Marshals national SOG (Special Operations Group), helicopters, and K-9s (including a bloodhound).
Bassler was spotted briefly when he emerged from the forest near his mother's house, only to escape back into the woods and elude capture. He's been living in these woods for nearly five months with a rifle, and has lived on and off in them much of his adult life. As one person put it, Bassler "knows them like the back of his hand."
Not surprisingly, people near Ft. Bragg are understandably nervous, and MCSO has been getting 10-15 leads each day. Rampant "sighting" rumors abound. Timber workers and backpackers are avoiding the area. And the popular tourist "Skunk Train" shut down temporarily, and reopened with armed guards aboard.
Initially, Bassler was believed to be somewhere in the dense woods between Ft. Bragg and Willits—40 miles away along the "Skunk Train" rail line. Bassler's father rode the rail line with police, making public address pleas for his son to surrender unarmed.
Anyone who's ever participated in intense, extended manhunts understands their difficult and draining nature, especially as the hours, days and weeks drag on.
I'll never forget watching one Midwest SWAT team on live television emerge from an intensive all-day search for a triple-murder suspect. They were physically and mentally exhausted and in no condition to take on a dangerous suspect. This was after one day of searching.
Imagine the Mendocino searchers who've been at it every day for more than three weeks since Aug. 27. Every day, they receive, and follow, new leads. The terrain is difficult—vast, densely wooded, and mountainous. In such vastness, searchers are looking for the proverbial "needle in the haystack." And not just any "needle"—an armed, dangerous, unpredictable, savvy woodsman adversary who's at home in his element.
To conduct these searches, personnel need to be in peak physical condition, have medical support, carry just tje right amount of equipment, rotate regularly, and rest/replenish between searches. Woodland team tracking skills, strategies, and tactics such as counter-ambush need to be up to speed. Vital communications may become difficult at best.
By necessity, searchers can never let their guard down, and must stay on full alert at all times. This alone, is extremely difficult to sustain, especially for long periods of time. Search supervisors need to constantly coordinate search strategy and tactics with daily briefings and debriefings.
Every tactical team should realistically assess whether they're capable and ready to handle a challenging and sustained manhunt in difficult terrain. Even the most built-up urban cities have outdoor areas with large, rugged places for dangerous suspects to hide. If your team isn't ready, now is the time to get up to speed.
Related: Survivalist Shot by Officers, After Five-Day Manhunt