Report: Councilman shooting suspect tended opium

A suspect in the killing of a Northern California city councilman had been tending opium poppy plants while living for months in the woods, authorities said, as they released additional details about the shooting.

Aaron Bassler, 35, the suspect in Fort Bragg, Calif., City Councilman Jere Melo's death on Saturday, was the sole tender of about 100 opium poppies, Mendocino County sheriff's officials told the Press Democrat of Santa Rosa on Monday ( ).

Poppy growing is uncommon in the rugged area outside Fort Bragg where Melo was killed, though it has been the site of illegal marijuana farms in the past, Sheriff's Capt. Kurt Smallcomb said.

Melo, a forest land manager, was with a friend looking for illegal marijuana farms when he was shot, authorities have said. Bassler remains at large.

Smallcomb told the Press Democrat that Melo was unarmed when he was shot several times in the torso by a high-caliber rifle. The shooter was on higher ground.

"He definitely never went out armed in all the years I knew him," Smallcomb said of Melo, whom he had known for about 25 years. "He wasn't looking to be violent toward anybody. He could talk his way out of anything if given the opportunity."

Melo's friend had a weapon and returned fire before escaping aboard a train on tracks a few hundred yards away, Smallcomb said. The tracks are used by a company that provides train tours of the surrounding redwood forest.

Authorities searched the forest on Monday for Bassler, who they say has a history of run-ins with the law.

Smallcomb said the search was slow because of the rugged terrain. He urged anyone who spotted Bassler not to approach him and contact authorities instead.


Information from: The Santa Rosa Press Democrat,