FORT BRAGG, Calif. – A Northern California town was reeling Monday after the death of a well-respected city councilman and former mayor who was gunned down after finding a remote illegal marijuana operation.
As authorities searched the rugged forest terrain for a suspect in the shooting, Fort Bragg Councilman Jere Melo was remembered as a community leader who led efforts to build firehouses and a first-class high school football stadium in the coastal town of about 7,000 people.
"We're in shock. It's unbelievable," current Mayor Dave Turner said. "No one has put in as much work here as Jere has. And I don't think anyone ever will."
Melo, a forest land manager, was killed Saturday while he and a co-worker were patrolling forestland on foot in a rugged area of timber land just outside town.
Melo, 69, was investigating reports of a marijuana farm along the Noyo River in the heart of pot country, authorities said. Melo's co-worker managed to escape and called for help on his cell phone.
Investigators suspect the gunman was Aaron Bassler, 35, a transient with a history of run-ins with the law, Mendocino County Sheriff Tom Allman said.
Bassler's run-ins with law enforcement include crashing a truck into a Fort Bragg middle school tennis court, the Fort Bragg Advocate-News reported. Police used pepper spray and a Taser to subdue him before he was arrested.
Bassler was last seen with a high-caliber rifle and should be considered armed and dangerous, Mendocino County sheriff's Capt. Kurt Smallcomb said.
Officers from multiple agencies, including state fire prevention specialists and fish and game agents, were searching the area.
Melo was in his 15th year on the City Council and had dedicated most of his life to improving Fort Bragg. The League of California Cities said in a statement that members were devastated to hear about Melo, who was a "shining example" of a public servant.
"California cities have lost a great leader. Jere Melo exemplified how one person has the power to make a great difference in his community," League President and Modesto Mayor Jim Ridenour said.
Turner said city officials met with grieving staff members.
"We know we're crippled," Turner said. "We're still trying to process this and I told my colleagues that we have a truckload of work to do now because Jere did it more and better than anybody."
Services for Melo are scheduled for Sept. 10 at the football stadium he helped build. Melo is survived by a wife and two adult children.