FORT BRAGG, Calif. – Authorities said Friday that they were closing in on a murder suspect who shot at a group of officers during the largest local manhunt in decades.
About 50 officers and two bloodhounds were scouring the redwood forest near Fort Bragg for Aaron Bassler a day after shots were fired at Alameda County deputies, said Kurt Smallcomb, a captain with Mendocino County sheriff's office.
No deputies were hit by the gunfire. They returned fire with about 10 shots.
Bassler has been at large for more than a month in Northern California.
"We were real close and lucky at the same time that nobody got injured," Smallcomb said.
Bassler, 35, is suspected of killing a Fort Bragg city councilman on Aug. 27 and one other person several weeks earlier.
Bassler is thought to be hiding in the redwoods outside of Fort Bragg and is believed to have broken into several cabins to steal food and at least two other weapons, authorities said.
"He is totally prepared to tactically engage us," Smallcomb said. "He has proven this in the last two shooting incidents."
Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said he did not know how many shots Bassler was suspected of firing, or whether he had been wounded in Thursday's exchange. More law enforcement officers were being flown into the area to join the search.
"We believe we really and truly encircled him in a way that may bring resolution ... but I have said that for 34 days," Allman said.
Smallcomb added that Bassler has a huge edge as far as his knowledge of the area.
"He's known this area for 30 years, we've only known it for 34 days," Smallcomb said. "He has the advantage as far as the landscape now."
The search was expected to continue around the clock, with air searches, fog permitting, in the daytime. Investigators believe Bassler is surviving without help from anyone.
"We have no reason to believe people are supplying him with food, logistics, information,: Allman said, adding there is a $30,000 reward in the case.
Officials asked residents and others to stay out of the forest until Bassler is captured.
Fort Bragg Councilman Jere Melo, who also worked as a security contractor, and a co-worker at a private timber company confronted Bassler while investigating reports of an illegal marijuana farm outside of town.
Police said Bassler was cultivating some 400 poppy plants and was holed up in a makeshift bunker when he fired on the 69-year-old Melo and a co-worker who escaped and called for help.
Bassler is also being sought in the fatal shooting of Matthew Coleman of the Mendocino County Land Trust. The former Fish and Game Department employee was found dead next to his car on Aug. 11 up the coast from Fort Bragg.
Both men were highly respected for their love of the land and their community work. The 7,000 residents of Fort Bragg have been on edge while the manhunt has enveloped their coastal fishing and lumber community.
James Bassler believes his son suffers from schizophrenia and for years has talked about aliens and spaceships, while crafting Chinese military stars and drawings of weapons systems.
His son was arrested in 2009 after he was accused of flinging some of those red stars over the fence of the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. He was released after authorities determined he was not an immediate threat to himself or others.
Aaron Bassler was arrested again on DUI charges in February after his truck rammed a school tennis court.
"He lost his truck, then he lost his place to live; all his links to the real world," his father said in an interview last week.
Earlier this week, authorities released a photo they said was Bassler vandalizing a vacation cabin while holding a high-caliber rifle. On Wednesday, they confirmed his fingerprints linked him to another burglary at a cabin.
James Bassler said he had tried for years to get county authorities to have his son put into a mental health program, but his letters and calls had gone unanswered due to privacy laws that protect his son.
Smallcomb and Allman hope to capture Bassler alive.
"If this ended without another shot being fired," Allman said, "we'd all be satisfied."