SAN FRANCISCO – An extensive search for a man suspected of killing a well-respected Northern California city councilman who found him while investigating an illegal marijuana farm has put area residents on "pins and needles."
"It's amazing that they haven't caught him, especially when he's still in the vicinity," said Cas Smith, 65, who owns a plumbing and heating business in Fort Bragg, about 165 miles north of San Francisco. "Folks are pretty concerned for their own safety with this guy running around."
About 50 local, state and federal agents combed the rugged forests and terrain along the Noyo River in the heart of pot country Tuesday searching for Aaron Bassler, said Mendocino County Sheriff's Capt. Kurt Smallcomb. Crews were also searching by air and on the ground by foot and with off-road vehicles, he said.
Bassler, 35, is accused of fatally shooting Fort Bragg Councilman Jere Melo on Aug. 27. Melo, a 69-year-old forest land manager, was gunned down as he and a co-worker investigated reports of an illegal marijuana farm outside of town.
The co-worker managed to escape and called for help on his cell phone.
The killing has rocked the coastal town of about 7,000 people. On Sunday, two deputies spotted Bassler near his mother's home, but he managed to flee despite being encountered by a police dog, Smallcomb said.
"We're staying the course. We're not wavering from our stance," Smallcomb told The Associated Press on Tuesday. "We're going to apprehend him. We're going to find him."
But the ongoing search has alarmed the community, putting residents on "pins and needles," said Smith, a longtime friend of Melo.
"He's such a loose cannon, he could pick people off," Smith said about Bassler. "It's a cat and mouse game right now, and he's winning the game at the moment. But I think that will be short-lived."
Smith added that attendance was lower than usual during Fort Bragg's annual Labor Day parade Monday and he doesn't attribute it to the foggy conditions. He said the surge of armed officers on the outskirts of town has created quite a presence.
"It's pretty frightening," Smith said.
A capacity crowd is expected to attend services Saturday for Melo at the high school football stadium he helped build, Smith said.
"Jere was a beloved man. Never met a person who didn't like him," Smith said. "Pretty unusual for a politician."
Bassler is also being sought in the fatal shooting of Matthew Coleman of the Mendocino Land Trust. The former Fish and Game Department employee and land manager was found shot to death next to his car Aug. 11 while clearing brush near a 400-acre ranch north of Westport.
Bassler was charged with both killings on Friday. Authorities declined to explain how Bassler may be linked to Coleman's death.
"We consider him very dangerous," Sheriff Tom Allman told KTVU-TV. "This man is in the woods and we're sending our deputies and our police officers out there every day."
"This guy, in our minds, has one thing to accomplish and that's to escape apprehension," Allman added.
Smallcomb urged Bassler's family or friends to contact authorities if they know of his whereabouts.
"I'm looking for a safe apprehension. Whoever may have had contact with him, please call us. That's what we're looking for," Smallcomb said. "We want this to come to a safe conclusion and let the courts handle it from there."