There's been a disturbing story playing out in California's Emerald Triangle (that's the region in Northern California that produces the state's biggest cash crop: marijuana). A local politico and a land manager were killed in the woods while seeking out pot plantations hidden amid the redwoods. Now, the suspect in those killings, who has been on the lam for 5 weeks, has been engaged in running gun battles with the authorities, leading to the inevitable escalation:
More than 100 law enforcement officers in camouflage uniforms and face paint descended on a 6-square-mile "hot zone" in the dense North Coast forest Friday, looking for a double-killing suspect believed to have opened fire on searchers the day before.
Officers have been summoned from around the state to hack through the woods and comb the steep hills east of Fort Bragg, looking for 35-year-old Aaron Bassler. It is believed to be one of the largest and most concentrated manhunts in Northern California history, said Michael McCloud, a supervisor with the U.S. marshal's office, who has worked in the agency's fugitive apprehension unit for 23 years.
"He brought the fight to us and it's raised the stakes," said Sgt. Greg Van Patten of the Mendocino County sheriff's office. "He showed he's capable and willing to fire upon anyone for any reason, and it's taken this to a whole new level."
Bassler is suspected in the shooting death of Fort Bragg City Councilman Jere Melo, 69, who was killed while investigating a marijuana farm as part of a security check for Campbell Timber Management on Aug. 27. Sixteen days earlier, authorities believe, Bassler shot and killed land manager Matthew Coleman in the hills north of Fort Bragg.
Both men were shot with high-powered rifles, and investigators said they found Bassler's DNA at the scene of Coleman's slaying.
On Thursday, Sheriff Tom Allman said, Bassler fired on three Alameda County sheriff's deputies as they walked along a dirt road in broad daylight, then flanked around them through thick brush and shot again.
The suspect's dad says his son is not violent, just crazy (well, that's a relief). But, someone trusted him enough to arm the guy with a high-powered rifle and guard their marijuana fields. And that's the thing that should be bothering people about this. The northern part of the state is famously overrun with marijuana fields, even as "regular" agriculture is enduring a depression brought on by the state's near-suicidal fealty to green ideology. Pot growers may cultivate (heh) an image of stoner innocence, but the truth is that they are criminals who are apparently willing to kill to protect their profits.
Bassler apparently shot and killed a local politician and a land manager. He has shot at sheriff's deputies. Now he's running around, living off the land like freakin' John Rambo. Transpose this story to Colombia or Mexico, and everybody would know what was going on. But move it to Northern California, and everyone tries to pretend that Bassler is crazy rather than acknowledge what he is: a hired killer working for a drug cartel.
This story really does deserve wider attention.
UPDATE: well, that was quick. Bassler has been shot dead.