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Fort Bragg manhunt raises mental health questions

Suspected killer's family and mental health advocates say the fugitive should have been compelled to undergo psychiatric evaluation and treatment years ago. They are pressing for changes now.

September 18, 2011|By Lee Romney, Los Angeles Times
  • Aaron Bassler, 35, who is suspected of killing a Fort Bragg city councilman and another man, disappeared into the woods northwest of San Francisco with a high-powered rifle four months ago.
Aaron Bassler, 35, who is suspected of killing a Fort Bragg city councilman… (Mendocino County Sheriff's…)

Authorities searching for suspected killer Aaron Bassler in the tangled woods around Fort Bragg have come tantalizingly close to capturing the fugitive, but his familiarity with the forest northwest of San Francisco has complicated the hunt, they say.

The closest call came when Bassler popped up behind a bush near his mother's house, but he vanished after a search dog tackled him. Since then, the man accused of gunning down two area foresters has managed to stay about 36 to 72 hours ahead of dozens of searchers, Mendocino County authorities say.

Now, as nervous locals await an end to the manhunt, family members and mental health advocates are using Bassler's story to push for court-ordered mental health treatment — saying the approach might have helped the troubled 35-year-old before events turned tragic.

Bassler's fixation on aliens and red stars was well known to those close to him, according to interviews and documents.

After lobbing notes on those themes into San Francisco's Chinese consulate in 2009, Bassler received a psychological evaluation and was channeled into a pretrial diversion program, according to court documents.

Bassler's father, Jim, said his son had long resisted any notion of illness and deteriorated after the diversion program ended.

The Fort Bragg fisherman is now urging the county to adopt a program that could have forced his son to undergo treatment before he disappeared into the woods with a high-powered rifle four months ago.

Last week, Mendocino County supervisors asked their staff to prepare a presentation on the mental health program, known as "assisted outpatient treatment."

"I am hoping there's some kind of change made," said Jim Bassler, who has been agonizing over the killings and believes such a program could help other families. "He really wanted to hide his delusions from people. But being around him, close enough to him, it was a constant thing."

The Aug. 27 killing of City Councilman Jere Melo, a former mayor, appeared at first to be drug-related.

The private forest land manager and a colleague were tracing a water line they believed led to a marijuana field, Mendocino County Sheriff's Sgt. Greg Van Patten said, but there was no marijuana to be found.

They were instead confronted by a man believed to be Aaron Bassler who opened fire on them. A small crop of stunted opium poppies that authorities believe he grew for personal use was nearby.

Bassler faces murder and attempted murder charges in that incident.

Undisclosed evidence led prosecutors to also include murder charges against Bassler in the Aug. 11 shooting death of conservationist Matthew Coleman — in an area where Van Patten said there was neither marijuana nor poppies.

The case "does not fit with those typical cases" of cultivation violence, he said. "There was no marijuana. There's no evidence he was around any of those grows. Whether he wanted to protect his poppies or not, I would think that probably doesn't play in."

Jim Bassler has described his son's symptoms as consistent with schizophrenia. However, he has not been informed of any formal diagnosis his son may have received during his federal diversion program, nor of any treatment.

Van Patten said any mental health link to the killings remains unknown.

While family members say Aaron Bassler is ill, "Others are saying, 'He's just not right. He had delusions and has a different perspective of what reality is,'" Van Patten said. "We're still trying to make sense of that."

Jim Bassler said his son's symptoms emerged at age 19 — when he also began drinking and using drugs — and took shape as "paranoia and really strongly held delusions, but if you confronted him you got nowhere."

After numerous minor run-ins with the law, he was arrested in early 2009 after tossing duct-taped bags onto the Chinese consulate property. Three contained depictions of aliens, red stars and Chinese weapons, and the fourth a black jumpsuit adorned with red stars, records show.

Bassler's mother escorted him to court-ordered counseling, and he seemed to cut down on drug use and drinking, his father said, but once probation ended "he got wilder."

After his son's February arrest for driving into a school tennis court fence at 80 mph, Jim Bassler begged in letters to the county's psychiatrist — who services the jail — for diagnosis and treatment.

"Aaron can pull it together to appear to be fine at times, but cannot sustain that for long," he wrote. "His family fears for his safety, there own safety, and that of the community, if this psychiatric disorder is not addressed."

He got no response, but said his son told him he was placed for a few days in a solitary cell. Once free, he returned to his grandmother's home, where he'd cared for her until her death.

Aaron Bassler surrounded the house with a 6-foot-high wall and covered the windows with heavy black curtains, his father said. There was little furniture except for the drawing tables where he sketched out interplanetary conspiracies. He slept in a 10-by-12-foot basement room he had hired someone to construct.

In California, a person can be involuntarily confined for psychiatric evaluation only if he or she is an imminent danger to self or others. But under the 2003 Laura's Law, counties can order "assisted outpatient treatment" for those who have been repeatedly jailed or hospitalized because of mental illness.

The law was created in response to the fatal shooting of Laura Wilcox by a mentally ill man who had resisted treatment. The killing occurred in Nevada County, the only county in the state so far to implement the law.

lee.romney@latimes.com

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