The Man in the Woods
When a mind begins to unravel, who has the right — and the responsibility — to step in?
By Ashley Powers
Photographs by McNair Evans
It’s cold in the woods. Dark, too. This redwood thicket outside Fort Bragg, California, feels like a passageway to some other realm. Redwoods have that effect. They’re Grimms’ fairytale trees: They render you small and disoriented, a child who’s wandered off. Look up: Their branches brawl for space with Douglas firs and grand firs, and the canopy of green nearly blots out the sun. Look ahead: You can’t see farther than a few yards.
There aren’t many well-groomed trails here, just skid roads etched by logging equipment. Ferns and branches web across them, as hard to untangle as knotted hair. They hide gopher snakes, turkey vultures, coyotes, gray foxes, mountain lions, black bears. What kind of man would squat here — not in the homeless camps near the forest’s edge, but deep in the wilderness?
One summer morning, Jere Melo tromped into the thicket. A beloved city councilman in Fort Bragg, a coastal town three hours north of San Francisco, Melo had spent much of his 69 years in these woods: first as a forester and now as a property manager for a timber company. Clad in an orange vest and aluminum hard hat, he checked that gates were open and roads closed, or vice versa. If he stumbled on a marijuana garden (this was Mendocino County, in the heart of California pot land), he slashed water pipes, hauled out beer cans, and gave the sheriff’s office a heads-up. The growers didn’t rattle him much. Most reacted like teenagers at a kegger and fled.
On this trek, Melo was accompanied by Ian Chaney. A tiling contractor who lived on nearby Sherwood Road, Chaney was the one who’d told Melo about the man in the woods, Aaron. Chaney didn’t know his surname, but he’d repeatedly run into Aaron near timber-company land and recognized his shaved head, broad shoulders, and tattered black wardrobe. A few weeks back, Chaney noticed a firelike glow in the forest. A chainsaw whirred. Soon Chaney spotted Aaron lugging a grower’s kit of potting soil and fertilizer into the woods. “An eccentric person,” Chaney warned Melo. “A bit unstable.”
It was midmorning when the men huffed up an incline, wind in their faces. They peeled back some brush and discovered a waterline. Chaney assumed they would write down GPS coordinates for the sheriff, then hike back. Instead, Melo followed the line, hacking it with his ax, and Chaney reluctantly tagged along. They soon arrived at a bunker: a fortress of dirt and logs a few feet deep, with a fire pit inside and barbed wire on top. Nearby were neat rows of red poppies. Opium poppies. Gave Chaney the creeps.
Melo put down his ax and picked up his camera. That’s when Chaney saw a bullet casing. “We got to go,” he whispered. Something crackled. Leaves, probably. The men turned around.
There he was, a few yards upslope: shaved head, broad shoulders, clad in black.
“Hey!” Melo called. “What the fuck are you doing over there?”
“FBI!” the man yelled. Then, gunfire.
Melo spun and fell. Chaney plastered himself against the bunker, whipped out his pistol, and popped off a few rounds. Aaron kept firing as Chaney slid-ran down the hill, fumbling with his cellphone.
“911, what is your emergency?”
“OK, listen to me right now. I’m being shot at — ”
“Where are you at?”
“I’m out in the woods, and I think Jere Melo has been hit. I got — ” Gunfire interrupted. “Shit!”
“Where are you at?”
“Goddamn it!” Some beeps. Chaney was thumbing the phone. “I’m out in the fucking woods!”
There isn’t much to Fort Bragg, population 7,200, a longtime logging town whose last mill shut down in 2002. You can zip through in less than ten minutes, stoplights included: welcome sign, RV park, weathered vacation lodges (Harbor Lite, Seabird, Ebb Tide), Safeway, Rite Aid, charming downtown peddling mango-pepper jelly and candy cap mushroom ice cream. But the real attraction unfurls on both sides of the city: untamed California.
To the west is the Mendocino coast, a stretch of wide beaches and lush headlands as sinuous as the edge of a puzzle piece and a Hollywood stand-in for rugged Maine in Murder, She Wrote. Fort Bragg’s swath is known for its glass beaches, former city dumps where waves polish broken tail lights and beer bottles into “sea glass” that resemble Jolly Ranchers. To the east, the redwoods don’t just soar above the town, they swallow it entirely. The forest is so immense, so impenetrable, that the quickest way to some parts is the Skunk Train, a logging route turned tourist railway that chugs 40 miles inland.
The redwoods have long beckoned loners and miscreants, seekers of fortune and refuge: flower children and tree sitters and cults (not far from here, Jim Jones was a teacher before moving his Peoples Temple to San Francisco and then to Guyana). Growing up in Fort Bragg, Aaron Bassler found solace here, too — he was a woodsman, not a lost boy.
Aaron was born in 1976 to a young couple, Jim Bassler and Laura Johansen. Their rocky union, at times more a brawl than a marriage, lasted only four years before they divvied up their possessions — Laura got the TV and washing machine, Jim the table saw and yellow couch — and tried to start anew. Both stayed in Fort Bragg and eventually remarried, and Jim had another son; Aaron and his younger sister, Natalie, sometimes felt they were floating between the two families, never entirely part of either one.
Aaron quickly sprouted from towheaded Gerber child to sullen teen who studied too little and drank too much. In his senior picture, in 1994, he’s dashing in a tuxedo and bow tie: thick dark hair, sapphire eyes, lips taut in an almost-smile. He was a lean 6-foot-1, and for a time, he played baseball and skied. But as far as his friends knew, he never had a girlfriend. Something about him warned: Stay away.
In the forest, though, he sprang to life. He and his buddy Jeremy James poached salmon, hunted quail, hiked the tracks, camped. They tended pot gardens and prided themselves on dodging security. One whiff of laundry detergent, an interloper’s scent, and they escaped to forts they’d made along the Noyo River, their sleeping bags wrapped in trash bags and tucked under brush.
The boys loved movies and quoted them constantly; their escapades must have felt like scenes in Stand by Me. They dreamed of joining the Army. Under “Future Plans” in his yearbook, Aaron wrote, “Get into the Special Forces.” For a quote, he riffed on a Neil Young lyric: “It’s better to burn out than fade away.” Perhaps it was a hint as to where Aaron’s mind was: That spring, Kurt Cobain used it as the sign-off to his suicide note.
The search for Aaron began immediately. Following Chaney’s directions, the local SWAT team started to retrace Melo’s path. They had chased plenty of cases into the woods, but usually farther inland, where the climate was warmer and more conducive to pot growing. This terrain was less navigable. “Jurassic Park,” joked one.
By nightfall, the team hadn’t even located the bunker — brush-choked trails had slowed them; at one point, a few guys tumbled into a ravine. They camped in the pitch-black forest, huddled around a glow stick, caked in dried sweat, shivering. After sunrise, they crunched their way through the brush and found Melo’s body. Nearby were 7.62 x 39 mm casings (from Aaron), 9 mm casings (from Chaney), a sleeping bag, foil twisted into a marijuana pipe, and silver Hershey’s Kisses wrappers — but no sign of where Aaron had fled.
The SWAT guys wanted to stake out specific locations, but with only a few dozen deputies to police the entire county, the department didn’t have the manpower. Instead, they rode the Skunk Train into the forest, each clad in camouflage and humping at least 30 pounds: a helmet, night-vision gear, a vest with rifle plates, water, ammunition, and a rifle whose size and power rivaled that of Aaron’s Norinco SKS Sporter. (Later, redwood gawkers sometimes joined them on the train. The operator, a man known as Chief Skunk, joked that the trip had probably never been safer.) They hiked around the woods, trying to flush out Aaron much as they would a pheasant, with few hints as to his exact location. Aaron didn’t carry a cellphone or anything they could track. Aircraft streaked across the sky but couldn’t see through the awning of branches.
One of the team’s leaders, deputy Jason Caudillo, had served in the Army, the same branch Aaron once dreamed of joining, and he felt strange deploying Ranger School tactics here. The men hiked single file, or “ducks in a row.” When they spoke, they whispered. They’d likely hear Aaron, or wildlife spooked by Aaron, before they spotted him. They found snuffed-out fires. They found pigeon carcasses. They found more than one crosshair. At least, that’s what they called them: circles with a cross in the middle — a taunt or a warning or nothing at all. This guy’s well-armed, Caudillo thought. He’s in shape. He’s obsessed with military tactics. He could be behind this redwood tree or that stump. He could be up that slope, around that bend. Someone’s going to die.
Aaron backed out of enlisting in the Army at the last minute. His friend Jeremy blamed the easy money of weed. But other problems soon cropped up. Aaron was guzzling peppermint schnapps and tinkering with acid and psychedelic mushrooms; when he wasn’t plastered, he was avoiding eye contact and mumbling about Nostradamus and quantum physics. His father was alarmed. But mustachioed, flannel-shirted, plainspoken Jim was a fisherman, not a shrink. Aaron’s an addict, he told himself.
Jim tried to protect his son. He moved Aaron into an old farmhouse across the street, on an overgrown patch of family land. Their neighborhood, near the northeast edge of Fort Bragg, has a rustic feel: goats chomping yards, a sign hawking PIGS RABBITS EGGS, the ocean salting afternoon breezes. One day, Aaron lit a fire in the farmhouse’s wood-burning stove, and the flames raced off and eviscerated the roof. It’s sunny today, Jim thought afterward. Warm, too. Why build a fire?
Aaron was closer to his mom, Laura, though their conversations were mostly pragmatic, with Aaron asking her to cook dinner or wash clothes. Aaron tried a few square jobs: delivering newspapers, cleaning a theater, chopping firewood, fishing with Jim (though that was always ill-fated; Aaron got seasick). But he preferred his marijuana gardens — in the woods, he was alone. Though he was constantly running from timber-company guards, he was able to earn enough to buy a black leather couch, a big-screen TV, a guitar, and some guns, as well as stash a few hundred dollars in a can (and then bury it) and brag to Jeremy, “I’m rich!”
In the days following Melo’s murder, Aaron’s mug shot glowered from downtown windows under the words ARMED AND DANGEROUS. It was an eerie counterpart to that long-ago yearbook photo: Now his face was hard, the light in his eyes dim. To the town, he was the bogeyman.
The sheriff charged with finding him, Tom Allman, had been a cop for three decades. Silver-haired and genial, Allman was probably best known for his tolerance of small mom-and-pop grows and his efforts to wipe out huge ones. Earlier that summer, he’d led a multiagency charge — including hundreds of officers and a squadron of helicopters and planes — that, authorities said, uprooted more than 600,000 marijuana plants. But he’d never overseen such a sprawling hunt for a fugitive; to his knowledge, no one in county history had.
The operation was run out of the Fort Bragg substation, a squat blue building whose walls were papered with maps reminding him how daunting his task was: 400 square miles of skid roads and game trails that Aaron had hiked for much of his life, many unmarked and so clotted with vegetation that you practically had to chainsaw your way through. A local logger, Allman would later tell reporters, summed up his predicament best: “‘So, Tom, what you’re saying is, in 400 square miles, you’re not trying to find a rabbit. You’re trying to find the rabbit — and the rabbit has an assault rifle.’”
As deputies searched, detectives interviewed Aaron’s parents. Jim had cleared away brush near his house so Aaron would have no place to lurk, and he’d been sleeping with a pistol nearby. He didn’t think his son would shoot him — but he didn’t want to confront him unarmed, either. In other moments, though, he softened into a worried dad: What if Aaron kills himself in the forest, he wondered, and no one finds his body?
Laura was equally distraught. Until now, she told detectives, Aaron had either stopped by her house or called every week. The last time she saw him, they went grocery shopping, and he bought 15 packs of ramen, some Best Yet rice, white-grape juice, bananas, Skittles, Milky Ways, Starbursts, Butterfingers, Milk Duds, and Hershey’s Kisses. (He’d always had a sweet tooth.) Then she drove him about 45 minutes up Highway 1 to a redwood grove that parted to a stunning expanse of sea; Aaron hopped out with his groceries and his rifle, a recent loan from an uncle.
When Laura mentioned the grove, detectives were startled. It was a potential clue in another homicide. About two weeks earlier, Matthew Coleman, a 45-year-old land manager, had been murdered. He was an unlikely victim: an avid reader and “gentle giant,” according to his sister.
Coleman arrived one morning at a conservation group’s property where he was clearing trails. He placed a weed eater and a pickax near his white Saturn station wagon. Then he was shot twice. That night, colleagues found his driver’s side door ajar and the car radio humming. Coleman was face-down, his head on the door frame, his right leg frozen midcrawl. Someone appeared to have defecated on his body. A search team discovered Hershey’s Kisses wrappers and foil twisted into a marijuana pipe. The results of a test comparing DNA on the foil pipe to DNA from Aaron’s blood came back soon after: They were a match.
As the manhunt entered its second week, Fort Bragg prepared for the annual Paul Bunyan Days parade, an homage to its logging heritage and the culmination of a weekend of fish frying, tricycle racing, water fighting, and ugly-dog judging. The procession would honor Jere Melo, and his City Hall colleagues planned to display a blown-up photo of him in a lumberjack shirt.
The day before the parade, there was a break in the case. A sergeant spotted Aaron near his mother’s house, and though Aaron quickly ghosted into the woods, deputies retrieved a backpack and a fanny pack belonging to him. It felt like rummaging through junk drawers. There was a bar of soap, a blue disposable razor, three aspirin. A bag of coffee grounds, several packs of fish hooks, a stained red rag. Two bags of seeds and dozens of rounds of ammunition, same caliber as the ones that killed Melo.
And then, wrapped in an ocean-tide chart and jammed into a plastic bag with a Raiders patch: 18 playing cards, each one an eight of spades.
That last discovery especially troubled Sheriff Allman. The case had been consuming him. He kept dreaming about it, jolting awake, reaching for his phone to see if there was any news. That night, he couldn’t fall asleep. He sat in his sweats, Googling: “eight of spades,” “8 of spades,” “8 symbolism,” looking for meaning.
In most crimes, a motive quickly emerges: money, dope, pride, love. Once you grasp that, you start to understand the man, think like him, guess his next move. Only Aaron didn’t make sense. His own father compared him to an animal, cowering in familiar turf. There’s no explanation, Jim said. The sheriff had known someone a little like that: his brother.
A water-treatment operator who lived one county to the north, Mike never lashed out like Aaron. But his lifelong storminess mystified his siblings, and when they tried to broach the subject, he waved them off. Even after Mike shot and killed himself — news the sheriff learned while guarding hospitals in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina — his family would never know why he unraveled. His obituary lamented only that his “big heart and compassionate nature was, in the end, unable to overcome his battle with alcohol.” Years had passed, and yet nearly every time Allman talked to their elderly mother, she found a way to bring it up.
When the sheriff realized how unsettled Aaron was, it reframed how he saw him: as a prisoner of his delusions. Allman was hunting someone whose trust he couldn’t win, whose motives weren’t grounded in reality. The meanings of the cards, the crosshairs, the crimes — they were all lost in the wilderness of Aaron’s mind.
In the winter of 2009, two years before the manhunt, Laura got a call. Aaron, then 32, had been arrested in San Francisco. Starting a few weeks earlier, Aaron had made several trips to the Chinese Consulate, a blocky white building that mostly blends into the surrounding Fillmore District. Sheathed in black, he left packages there. Diplomats panicked and called the police; a bomb squad found no explosives inside. Three times, the packages contained a drawing of a red star and a message: “Alpha RE, Martian Military and Chinese Weapons Designs.” The fourth time, when a cop saw Aaron heave a package over the fence and arrested him, the package held a black jumpsuit with red stars. Later, Aaron told a friend that Martians had been helping China build technology to invade the United States.
Following the arrest, while Aaron was briefly locked up, his sister, Natalie, walked over to his latest residence: a small, gray outbuilding behind the farmhouse he’d burned down. Natalie was three years younger than Aaron and as blond and charming as he was dark and brooding. They were never close, but Natalie still wanted answers about Aaron’s behavior and hoped they were inside.
Aaron had thrown up a 6-foot-tall fence and padlocked most everything, but a window was open, and she wriggled through. It was dim inside, with the windows shrouded by black sheets. The kitchen floor was black, too. Natalie didn’t see any dishes; Aaron refused to turn on the gas stove, convinced he smelled a leak, though the utility company had checked and found nothing awry. He’d gotten rid of nearly all his furniture, except a large drawing table.
Natalie didn’t look in what the family called the dungeon, the roughly 8-foot-by-12-foot basement her brother had constructed as a sleeping chamber. She didn’t need to. The living room was a whirl of paper, hinting at the thoughts that consumed him: giant world maps, sketches of aliens. Natalie thought of A Beautiful Mind. For so long, she’d dismissed her brother as a jerk, a weirdo, a creep. Aaron’s really sick, she realized, and she was almost relieved he was behind bars. Maybe there, she reasoned, he’d get help.
Like Aaron, 40-year-old Californian Scott Thorpe had reached an age when his peers had chosen careers, married, started raising kids. Instead, Thorpe shrouded his windows and stockpiled guns to fend off an FBI assault imminent only in his mind. Alarmed by his slipping grasp on reality, his family asked his psychiatrist to commit him, to no avail. Then one day in 2001, Thorpe brought a gun to a mental-health clinic in Nevada County, California, shot and killed two people, drove to a restaurant he believed had poisoned him, and gunned down a third.
In the aftermath, the family of one of his victims, a 19-year-old college student named Laura Wilcox who was filling in at the clinic over winter break, began lobbying for a bill that came to bear her name. Passed in 2002, Laura’s Law makes it easier to court-order those who are rapidly and publicly deteriorating to be treated at home, a program known as assisted outpatient treatment.
Laura’s Law is designed as a compromise between giving those with mental illness responsibility for their own care and locking them in state psychiatric facilities, many of which were considered inhumane. California was at the forefront of a movement that made it harder to commit people with mental illnesses and shuttered facilities nationwide (including one in Mendocino County; it’s now the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a monastery and training center). This deinstitutionalization was an effort intertwined with the civil rights era, as new antipsychotic drugs afforded the seriously mentally ill a chance to reclaim their autonomy.
The fallout from this system is apparent from San Francisco’s Tenderloin to Los Angeles’s Skid Row and in nearly every correctional facility. If Aaron’s story had ended with him as a 32-year-old marooned in a cell, obsessing over an alien conspiracy, it wouldn’t have been exceptional. A few years ago, when a grand jury visited the Mendocino County lockup, close to a fifth of the inmates had psychiatric troubles, on par with estimates from around the country. A dozen were in bad enough shape that they should have been hospitalized — including an inmate arrested on a misdemeanor charge who’d spent months waiting for a psychiatric bed. And those in jail aren’t the worst off. Last year, The Washington Post analyzed close to 1,000 fatal shootings by police and found about a quarter of those killed were either mentally ill or in the throes of emotional crises — and in many cases, panicked families or neighbors had been the ones to seek the cops’ help. “We as parents really have nowhere to turn,” says Dan Hamburg, a Mendocino County supervisor whose son has schizophrenia and once led police on a high-speed chase.
To patient-rights advocates, solutions like Laura’s Law are a throwback to the asylum era. Laura’s Law gives power to a roommate, family member, therapist, or law-enforcement officer to start a process that could force people into intensive treatment overseen by a judge, sometimes before they’ve even broken any laws. We don’t force cancer patients to undergo chemotherapy or diabetics to inject insulin, and the perception that the mentally ill are responsible for more violence than others is, for the most part, untrue.
At least half of people with schizophrenia, however, can’t recognize they’re sick, and so most states have some kind of involuntary outpatient commitment law. Several of them, like California’s, are modeled after a 1999 New York measure called Kendra’s Law. When researchers evaluated Kendra’s Law a few years ago, they found participants were more likely to keep adequate medication on hand and less likely to end up hospitalized. Sparsely populated Nevada County, where Scott Thorpe’s rampage took place, was the first county to fully implement Laura’s Law, in 2008. Its program is small, with fewer than two dozen participants during the most recent yearlong reporting period. They spent 79.5 percent fewer days homeless, 77 percent fewer days hospitalized, and 100 percent fewer days jailed — numbers consistent with past years of the program.
But the state didn’t provide funding for Laura’s Law, as New York did for Kendra’s Law, and it has to be approved county by county, meaning 58 separate conversations few people want to have. At the time of Aaron’s descent, Mendocino and nearly every other county hadn’t opted in. Only after a string of mass shootings involving disturbed young men — after Tucson and Aurora and Newtown — did state lawmakers agree to counties using certain funds to implement the law. Ever since, much of the state has grappled with the question that dogged Aaron’s family: How far should we let someone crumble before we step in?
In the third week of the search for Aaron, detectives found that someone had jimmied open a window at a former Boy Scouts facility, Camp Noyo. On the other side of the building, they found a cross made of sticks. There was a motion-activated camera nearby, and they downloaded a stream of black-and-white photos. The sheriff had been toying with the theory that Aaron was less of a mountain lion, stalking prey through the forest, and more of a bear, lashing out only when threatened. In fact, Aaron had run into at least one transient, and he hadn’t turned on the man — he’d shared a joint with him. Maybe if they approached him the right way, he’d surrender?
But the photos hinted at a darker outcome. The man in them had a spectral quality. He stood outside the Camp Noyo kitchen, a rickety wood structure, his back to the camera, his gaze fixed on a small window reflecting a knot of branches. He wore a dark jacket, though because of the camera’s night vision, it gleamed white. His pants had split in the rear, and he’d tucked the ankles into pulled-up socks, pseudo-military-style. In his right hand, Aaron clutched a rifle, as large as anything in the movies. The position of his index finger made Allman shudder: He rested it alongside the trigger, as cops and soldiers do. There’s a killer in the woods, the sheriff thought, and we’re not smart enough to find him.
The search was stretching past a month; it had included dozens of law-enforcement officers pulled from the U.S. Marshals Service and from agencies up and down California. They’d scoured the woods but couldn’t stay indefinitely, and the rainy season loomed: storms pelting the coast, fog shrouding the forest. What else could they do?
Deputies had scattered 40 motion-activated cameras through the woods and ended up with an album’s worth of wildlife photos. Community groups offered a $30,000 reward, and mostly kooks responded. (One psychic claimed Aaron was hiding “around tall trees near to a large body of water,” which basically describes the entire Northern California coast.) The sheriff considered tucking notes in the brush, urging Aaron to give up — there was really no other way to communicate with him. But U.S. Marshals behavioral experts were helping with the case and warned that Aaron’s mind was too jumbled: Instead, they suggested, try short messages describing specific locations as either SAFE or UNSAFE.
As desperate as the sheriff was to find Aaron, he also felt a tug of sympathy for his family. Not just because of his own brother’s suicide, but because, as sheriff, he’d sat across from numerous parents who had begged him to help rein in their mentally unstable child, and he had been able to offer little beyond his condolences. He’d enlisted Aaron’s dad in the search. Sleep-starved and frazzled, Jim had considered trying to track down Aaron himself, an idea his wife nixed. He kept chewing over how the manhunt might end — with Aaron dead, probably. Just don’t let him kill anyone else first.
Jim boarded the Skunk Train one day with deputies. They handed him a bullhorn, and as the train lurched along, he pleaded with Aaron. Jim tried for a casual tone, as if his son were late for dinner, but he struggled to stay composed. Laura couldn’t bring herself to go. Instead, she shouted into the trees near her home — “Aaron!” — or left him a bag of food with a note:
“Aaron, If you come across this bag it’s from me, your mom. The bag is not bugged or anything. Please turn yourself in we are all worried sick about you. Please leave me a note. Love, Your Mom & Family
P.S. No one knows I left this.”
As far as his family knows, Aaron was never diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder — though medical privacy laws mean they only know what he chose to share. After the Chinese Consulate scare, he was enrolled in a federal pretrial diversion program. If he went to counseling, his charges would be dismissed. Sharing his dark thoughts seemed to help, though he told a friend he wasn’t like the other patients: They were nut jobs.
As the summer of 2010 became fall, and Aaron’s case wrapped up, he hurtled downhill. He screamed obscenities at an off-duty cop waiting for his kid’s school bus. He parked on Highway 1 for days, eating Skittles while hunched inside his Toyota Tacoma, whose entire dashboard, including the speedometer, he’d spray-painted black. He was speed-talking and fidgeting, jabbering about survivalism, one-man warfare. His family was his only tether to society, and by then they were terrified of him.
On a cool winter evening in 2011, Aaron barreled his truck into a chain-link fence outside the middle school tennis courts, barely missing a clutch of students. His blood-alcohol level was three times the legal limit, and when officers arrived, he thrashed and kicked so furiously that it took several of them — plus pepper spray and a taser — to pin him down and arrest him.
To those around him, Aaron’s DUI arrest was welcome. At least in jail, guards could subdue him if he careened out of control; on the outside, his family was powerless. Natalie was convinced that Aaron would kill himself, and she asked her dad repeatedly: What can we do?
Jim had been poring over a medical guide, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and he believed Aaron had schizophrenia. He consulted a woman named Sonya Nesch, whom he’d met through the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She’d written a book on mental-health advocacy and offered Jim a suggestion that, in her years of counseling families, had never failed to get some response: Send a letter to every official who could help, asking for a psychiatric evaluation and possible treatment. So Jim listed Aaron’s symptoms — paranoia, recklessness, rage — and implored for someone to intervene: “His family fears for his safety, there [sic] own safety and that of the community, if this psychiatric disorder is not addressed.”
Jim sent his letter to the county psychiatrist and to his son’s public defender. He was surprised when Aaron was sentenced to only a few weeks behind bars and ordered to attend a drunk-driving program.
In the spring, Jim opened his door and found Aaron on his porch. Father and son sat on blue furniture draped with blankets, the walls covered in horse art and family photos. Aaron chattered about his jail stint and his wrecked truck, and Jim listened intently. Then Aaron shared his plans: I’m going to go into the woods and get my head together. Jim thought, Great idea. In the woods, Aaron would be safe from society — and it from him.
During the course of the manhunt, police had been tracking someone who was breaking into cabins. The thief had bypassed electronics, marijuana, and anything else of value, and instead filched bread, peanut butter, jam, sausage, rice, pasta, hot dogs, a rack of ribs, dozens of soup and vegetable cans, two Coronas, and a bottle of cheap vodka. He swiped blankets, binoculars, a pair of firearms: a 12-gauge shotgun and a .22-caliber rifle. These were smash-and-grabs, and the thief left only whiffs of his presence.
Then, during one burglary, in the community of Northspur, the thief apparently lingered: muddying the kitchen, confetti-ing marijuana trimmings across a futon, swigging Jim Beam. The bottle was dusty, and a deputy noticed fingerprints on its neck. One turned out to be Aaron’s right thumb.
The morning after that discovery, a three-man team pulled up to a logging road and spotted Aaron, rifle in hand. Aaron opened fire, then disappeared. But the cops were closing in. The next day, just before dinnertime: a report of another break-in. Though the shop was on the outskirts of Fort Bragg — roughly a 14-mile hike from Northspur — the thief’s identity was clear. Among his plunder: a half-eaten bag of Lay’s barbecue chips, five boxes of ammunition, and brown hiking boots, size 12.
Deputy Caudillo arrived with a floppy-eared bloodhound named Willow, who usually worked the concrete sprawl of eastern Los Angeles County. She sniffed the shop’s rug. Padded over to a bench. Rocketed into the trees and led deputies straight toward Aaron’s bunker.
Every law-enforcement team was sent to the vicinity, and several hunkered down overnight near the dirt paths Aaron might use to escape. They melted into the hulking trunks, the gnarls of ferns, the darkness of a forest veiled in branches. It was October 1, 2011, a few months since Aaron decamped to the woods and 36 days since the manhunt began. Hours crawled by; sunlight eked through the trees; a new crop of officers rotated in. Finally, one deputy nudged the others, a prearranged signal.
A man was striding around the bend: stubbled head, broad shoulders, clad in black. He lugged a backpack with the stolen .22-caliber rifle, a couple hundred rounds of ammunition, and more eights of spades. He grasped the Norinco rifle, safety off, a round in the chamber. It wasn’t long before Allman, at the Fort Bragg substation, heard the radio crackle: “Target down.” Aaron was dead, struck by seven bullets.
The letters Jim sent, it turned out, had disappeared into a bureaucratic void. The county psychiatrist apparently never saw them and never assessed Aaron.
For a long time after Aaron’s death, Natalie pilled herself to sleep. During the day, she busied herself with her family and tried to pretend her brother never existed. When he flickered into her head, she sobbed for his victims, their families. She still can’t keep pictures of him around.
Jim sat on the county mental-health advisory board for a spell and repeatedly pressed supervisors to adopt Laura’s Law. This year, Mendocino County became one of nine California counties to use it. It’s just a small test program, though, and Jim knows that a law can’t prevent every tragedy. When he speaks about Aaron now, his shoulders sag and his gaze drifts across the room, as if a ghost of sorts has entered.
The sheriff eventually self-published a book about the manhunt with a co-author. In it, he recounts the moments after hearing about Aaron’s death: hopping into a truck, speeding down Sherwood Road, passing Laura’s house. It’s the part of Fort Bragg where the forest envelops the town, and the roads soon peter into dirt. He stopped at a logging road cordoned off with crime-scene tape, and a deputy pointed up a hill. Seeing Aaron’s body, the sheriff felt relief, but no surge of victory. This was the same forest Aaron had played in as a child. He had been one of them, and now he was a crumple of black.
Ashley Powers is a contributing writer for The California Sunday Magazine. She lives in Washington, D.C.
McNair Evans, a photographer based in San Francisco, is a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow. His current show, In Search of Great Men, is on view at the San Francisco Arts Commission City Hall Gallery through November 7, 2016.
Holly Wales is an illustrator based in the U.K. She has exhibited work internationally and has had her work featured in a number of books and magazines.
Originally published at californiasunday.com on June 2, 2016.