By Laird Harrison
OAKLAND, Calif (Reuters) - An opium-growing recluse wanted in connection with two murders exchanged gunfire with police in northern California but slipped back away into dense woods where he has hidden out for five weeks, authorities said on Friday.
No one was hurt in Thursday's shootout with Aaron Bassler, 35, near the town of Northspur, located about 150 miles north of San Francisco in the rugged coastal mountains of Mendocino County, said sheriff's department Captain Kurt Smallcomb.
But Bassler, described by his father as mentally ill and living like a virtual hermit, managed to avoid capture again in what was his closest brush with arrest since he went on the run last month.
"We are focused on the Northspur area," Smallcomb told Reuters. He said Bassler had been breaking into cabins in the area, and was photographed holding a rifle by a surveillance camera at one of them.
The manhunt has covered 400 square miles and involved 30 to 50 law enforcement officers with K-9 dog units every day since Bassler is accused of having gunned down Jere Melo, a city councilman from nearby Fort Bragg, California, on August 27.
Melo, 69, who was working as property manager for a timber company, was slain after stumbling onto an illegal opium poppy garden Bassler was tending to in a wooded area near Fort Bragg, authorities said.
Bassler was recognized by a companion of Melo's who managed to escape and call for help, Smallcomb said.
Police later found evidence, including DNA, linking Bassler to the earlier death of another property manager, Matthew Coleman, 45, who was found dead near his car after patrolling a forest 20 miles north of Fort Bragg, Smallcomb said.
The fugitive's father, James Bassler, said he hoped officers could capture his son alive. "I may get a call at any time," he told Reuters. "Hopefully they get him pinned down and I can talk to him."
The elder Bassler said his son has a long history of undiagnosed mental illness, with symptoms resembling paranoid schizophrenia, dating back to when his son was arrested for drunkenness at age 18 or 19 and disappeared for two days after being released from the county jail.
"Finally we got a call and picked him up, and he was really strange," he said. "He was delusional, and he never got back to normal."
Aaron Bassler's problems came to a head 2 1/2 years ago when he began throwing writings into the Chinese consulate in San Francisco. The material included ravings about the Martian military, James Bassler said.
Aaron Bassler has refused to seek medical treatment or even acknowledge he had a problem, his father said.
"My family was becoming really afraid for his safety, our safety, and the rest of the community. I wrote letters but no one paid attention," the father said.
The suspect supported himself by growing marijuana until about 2005, the elder Bassler said, adding that the opium patch found by Melo was too small to provide a living and was probably used by his son for his own consumption.
The younger Bassler took to the woods and became increasingly isolated, except for occasional visits by his mother, who supplied him with groceries, and he may not have seen anyone for months at a time, his father said.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Greg McCune)