Ashley Powers spent the first decade of her career at the Los Angeles Times, working her way up from intern to breaking news reporter to national correspondent. When she left the Times in 2014 to move with her husband to the East Coast, her “metabolism for news” – never very fast to begin with — had slowed considerably. She decided to pursue deeper narratives that required more research, more reporting and a lot more words.
With a laugh, Powers calls her transition to magazine writing “the most satisfying professional decision I’ve ever made, but the least lucrative.” Shortly after her move east, the West Coast came calling again, when The California Sunday Magazine reached out for longform story ideas. Powers started pitching stories that were related, in some fashion, to her previous reporting.
Her third and most recent story, The Man in the Woods, was no different. The piece, about a young man’s descent into psychosis, his turn to violence and his disappearance into the woods of Northern California, expands on earlier reporting on the violent repercussions of untreated mental illness.
“I had covered quite a few mass shootings before, so these ideas — mental illness, violence and what it all means — had been rolling around in my head for some time,” Powers said. “Especially with the Tucson shooting, Jared Loughner was someone who was really publicly crumbling in a similar way to Aaron Bassler. The idea of, Could someone have stepped in, and if they had, could they have changed anything?”
Powers spent months researching, reporting and crafting a story that threaded two narratives — that of the police manhunt of Aaron Bassler, and that of his broader life — that became The Man in the Woods.
This interview took place over a series of phone conversations. It has been condensed and edited.
How did you first discover the story of Aaron Bassler?
I know I was aware of it at the time. I consume all kinds of news every day, and in some ways I feel like my brain is a repository of old LA Times stories. It was something I read about but hadn’t thought about in a long time. Around 2014 or early 2015, I started seeing a lot of stories about the large counties in California considering Laura’s Law. Jim Bassler had been interviewed in a few stories here and there because he was a proponent of it, and something clicked in my head that I should connect the two. I should go back and see if someone had written a big story about what happened with Aaron, and figure out whether I could connect it to what’s happening now and discuss both in a compelling way.
“I had covered quite a few mass shootings before, so these ideas — mental illness, violence and what it all means — had been rolling around in my head for some time. Especially with the Tucson shooting, Jared Loughner was someone who was really publicly crumbling in a similar way to Aaron Bassler. The idea of, Could someone have stepped in, and if they had, could they have changed anything?”
What were some of the challenges of re-creating a story not just from the past, but from the recent past, and a story on a subject who is now deceased and who remained a mystery even to his family for much of his adult life?
The recent past can be tough, but reporting-wise, the first thing I did — and the first thing I do on every reconstruct — was to look for documents and contemporaneous accounts, so that was court records, police coverage, all the news coverage from local papers, not just stories but photographs. For example, people looking in the windows downtown, there was a photograph of that in a local paper. When writing I’m always trying to visualize, and that was really helpful to do that. What I did is I used all of it, I put it all in a running timeline the whole time I’m reporting a story so I can keep track of events. I use that when I sit down with people in interviews, to build on what’s already been reported.
Then when I’m sitting with Jim Bassler, I’m saying, “Back in 2011, you told the local paper X. What were you thinking in that moment, what were you feeling in that moment?”
What about the challenge of making this man – who was nearly as unknowable in life as he was in death – at least partly sympathetic?
It is really hard, when you’re writing about Aaron or anyone else who did something really horrible, to get the reader to sort of invest in that character. Some people will read out of pure fascination, who want to know about the mind of the killer. Other people need things to grab onto. I think my challenge was less making Aaron sympathetic, because it’s hard to be sympathetic to someone who killed two people. I think what I tried to do was look for moments that feel universal, in a way. For me, the part about his childhood felt pretty important, even if it’s just a few paragraphs. Him being a kid, running around the woods with his friend Jeremy, kind of living that “Stand By Me” existence. We’ve all been kids. We’ve all had a safe space where we can escape our parents and our problems. That was important to ground him as a human being. So by the point where he becomes a cipher to his family and his friends, you can feel that turn of events more. It has a little more power to it. You can feel there was a time before this, before he was unknowable. So by the time he does, you can see through the other people’s eyes how frustrating that felt, because you know he wasn’t that person from day one.
Did you have any difficulties getting sources to open up to you?
There is one thing: To talk to almost everyone in the story, I wrote them a letter first. For people who are young writers, that may be a good tip to put out there. I approach people through letters first because I don’t like calling people out of the blue, and these days you’re probably going to get them on their cell phone in the grocery store and it’s a lot easier to ignore that than with a letter.
I did it on a few stories at the Los Angeles Times, ones I had a longer time to work on. The last year there, I worked with two other reporters on a series of stories about sex abuse by priests. I just kept thinking, I don’t want to call someone out of the blue and ask them about being abused 30 years ago. If someone did that to me, I would hang up on them. How do I approach them? If I send them an email, how am I even going to know if they received it? What worked really well, if I couldn’t find a go-between like an attorney, was to write a letter. Say, here’s what I’m doing, here’s the story I want to write and I’m really hoping you can be a part of it. That gives them the ability to think over whether they want to do it then contact me if they’re interested.
Would you consider this a true crime story or a mental health story? Was it always a conscious decision to discuss and dissect both Bassler’s crimes and where he fit into the larger mental health narrative?
I think as reporters we’re always looking for ways to get readers to care about something they might not have cared about, or didn’t realize they cared about. It’s like when you’re giving a little kid a pill so you put it in applesauce. This story is both. It’s true crime, but it’s a way to talk about how a person gets to the point where they’re leading someone on this manhunt. As a reader, I generally don’t like true crime for true crime’s sake, but what I love is true crime stories that are used to talk about something bigger: A policy issue, or a universal human feeling, or theme or emotion. Those stories really resonate with me. I like stories that are cinematic but also make me think.
Did you always plan to weave the two major threads of the narrative together?
We always talked about threading the two narratives. In my mind, it was because both narrative threads were sort of different in their tone and pacing. The family sections are more expository and the manhunt sections are a little more action-driven. The idea is one pulls you through the other: People will read this because they’re fascinated with the manhunt, or people who want to know more about Aaron and how he got to this place. You couldn’t tell it chronologically, because the two threads feel very different, so it always felt like the only way to do it was to braid them together.
My questions are in red, her responses in blue. To read the story without annotations first, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button
The Man in the Woods
Originally published in The California Sunday Magazine on June 2, 2016.
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. Why did you choose to start here? Was it important to immediately drop your reader into the wilderness? Honestly, I never thought of starting the story any other way. It seemed the right place. The woods were so important to this story, on both a literal and a metaphorical sense. You needed to understand why Aaron was drawn to the woods, but also what had happened to him to get him to the point where he wasn’t just visiting the woods for fun but living there. The other thread of the story was the manhunt through the woods, and with that the terrain was everything. If you thought of this as a play, the forest would be the set on stage and all the characters would come on and off into this forest. And it needed to be established as a potentially foreboding place. Redwoods are beautiful and majestic, but I wanted the reader to go there and see that being among them could also be scary and threatening under the right circumstances. To be able to visualize themselves, for example, standing next to a sheriff’s deputy who’s trying to find a killer in these woods.
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? You introduce the man in the woods here but don’t detail him for another few paragraphs. Why? I think it was a way to build a little tension. You’ve got a guy looming out in the woods. What kind of person gets to a point where they want to be in the middle of the forest like this? This was the precipitating incident of the entire story.
One summer morning, Jere Melo tromped into the thicket. Why start with Melo? I think Jere is a pretty good stand-in for the reader. He’s this normal guy, he’s genial, and he’s just tromping into the woods to see what this guy is doing. Because you know him a little bit by the time he has the encounter with Aaron, it hits a little harder when it happens. At least you have a better picture of what happens than if you had started it another way. 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?” This scene almost, just almost, makes it seem like Melo was a bit of a bull in a china shop, ignoring Chaney’s advice. Was that deliberate? Not necessarily. This account of what happened is written very closely to what Chaney told law enforcement in the moments after this happened. When I was reading his account of what happened, it made sense to me knowing the little I knew about Jere. This is a guy who had been in this patch of forest even longer than Aaron. He knew it well. It was his backyard, and it was his job to protect it. He dealt with growers before, which we mentioned. And in my mind, he’s probably used that same authoritative, police officer-esque tone with people, and it probably always worked before. In 99% of cases, someone who was doing something wrong would probably get freaked out and just run away. He probably had no reason to believe that Aaron would necessarily be any different from any strange person he had come across in the forest before.
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. The pivot from dramatic dialogue to a sleepy, Twin Peaks-esque town is very effective, like a camera panning very close and then back. Do you think cinematically when you write, like it’s a movie unfolding? Like most writers I love movies and television shows and novels that use these sort of techniques. Most of us are trying to mimic them in some ways. In terms of starting this section with a few paragraphs of sleepy description, I felt I could get away with that because the section above was so dramatic. So if you were hooked by then, you’ll probably put up with a few paragraphs of description before seeing where the story goes. You’ll put some trust in the writer to go along with this before jumping back into the plot. I like little bits of description because it helps orient me as a reader. Now I’m not in the woods anymore, now I’m in the town of Fort Bragg. So in future scenes, I have this to come back and reorient myself. It’s like seeing a point on the map.
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. Excellent detail, but sometimes it can feel like I’m drowning in excellent details. Why include it? I promise I was not trying to drown you. With this detail, it’s part of me trying to make things as visual as possible. Get a little mental movie. That’s how I think and how I read. Divorce can be kind of a flat word, so if I say that, you might think of the piece of paper or people standing in a courtroom. When I was reading the divorce papers and seeing what items they were divvying up, I got the image of this young couple and how this couch was being taken by one, had to be moved out by the other. I thought this just brought things to life for me a little bit more, and that’s why I included it. 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. Why not quote a friend you spoke to here? The “stay away” point seems, while accurate, a little anecdotal. You have picked up on the fact I don’t like to use a lot of quotes. That is a definite quality of my writing. I feel like when you put something in quotes, you’re signaling that this is something special, you need to pay attention to this. The idea behind long-form magazine stories is to try to make it read as much like fiction as possible. For me as a reader, a quote that’s given to a reporter as opposed to dialogue in the story takes me out of the narrative a little bit. As a reader, it takes me out of the story a little bit. Especially if the reporter is not a character in the story. My preference is to kind of embed these thoughts and feelings into the character, instead of signaling to the reader that I talked to this person and here’s what they told me while they were sitting on their couch.
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. The pacing on the manhunt thread is really interesting. Did you intend to build the pace and anticipation with this energetic, staccato, short-sentence style? It just felt like the right way to write these scenes. The general rule of thumb is if you want to speed things up, you write in short sentences, and if you want to slow them down you write in long ones. Being a former newspaper reporter, I naturally write in short sentences. Also I feel like the more intense the action is, the less you have to do as a writer in terms of dressing it up. I don’t need a lot of extra words to describe what’s happening for it to be compelling. I can just let the action unfold. Speaking of extra words, did you write to length? Was the structure affected by the editing process? The story came in long, and I have to give a lot of credit to my editor, Deirdre Foley-Mendelssohn. She’s fantastic and has a really good ear for pacing. Structurally, the story always stayed pretty similar. She did a very good job to edit with an eye toward speed and pacing and tension. A lot of the writing is very similar to the initial draft, but sometimes she trimmed down on details — you think you’re drowning in details now, you should’ve seen it before — to make the sections speed up. We pared back the amount of law enforcement people who appear in the story, for example. I initially included a lot more of them in the family section; she had the really good idea of just sort of hinting that Aaron had some possible problems. That was originally higher up beforehand, and she said to have it unfold as it did for his family, without giving it all away up top.
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. Did you head into the forest yourself? I did. I am the kind of reporter who really needs to see things for them to click. Pictures are helpful but there’s something about being there that pulls things together for me. I had been to this area [of California] a couple of times as a tourist when I lived there, but never deep into the woods. There were two people from the Mendocino County Sheriff’s Department who very graciously took me on a tour, and I was able to go to some of the key places in the story. That was extremely helpful because just in hiking with those two guys in the woods, I would realize they would be five feet in front of me and sometimes I couldn’t see them. I also rode the Skunk Train, and realized how the manhunt very much followed its route through the forest. Most of the descriptive passages in the story I was able to pull from things I wrote down in my notebook after going into the forest. I would write down sentences by hand to try and download all of my thoughts in the moment so when I went back to write the story, I had these immediate impressions to pull from. 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? Of all the characters – beyond Aaron, of course – I find the father the most poignant and compelling. He fears his son will kill him, but also that his son will kill himself. Were you tempted to expand his role, or were you worried the father-of-killer trope is overdone? I did give it some thought because he was compelling, and he was good at articulating the fear that probably any parent whose child is spiraling out of control would feel. But I felt this story was one of Aaron as a rock who was dropped in a pond, and this story was about the ripple that causes. I saw Jim as being the largest ripple, the most dramatic one, but you also have his sister, his mother, the police and the victims of Aaron’s crimes. So all of those were elements I was trying to juggle. So I tried to take the choice pieces of Jim’s struggle and use those when I could, without completely turning the story into one about Jim and Aaron.
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.) Great detail. Was this just an attempt to provide foreshadowing and clues, or was there something deeper, about this arrested-development boy-man? I think it was probably simpler than that, actually. It was the last time in the story we have him doing anything normal. He’s shopping and he’s indulging his sweet tooth. It’s another sort of relatable, universal moment, like those from his childhood. You don’t see that later. Him going grocery shopping with his mom is as normal as it gets. It’s very jarring that afterward he goes on this crime spree and this manhunt, and there was something interesting to me about that juxtaposition. It’s the last time the reader sees him as this semi-normal guy. 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. Were you tempted to emphasize the second homicide to a greater extent? Part of that choice was that it was appearing in a flashback. Here you as a reader learn things as the detectives do, and the detectives didn’t learn about the connection to the Coleman homicide until after the Jere Melo homicide. Because it’s being done in a flashback, I wanted to keep it chronological. Laura was telling the detectives about the last time she saw Aaron, going grocery shopping and then dropping him at this camp. She doesn’t realize one of the next things he does is shoot and kill Matthew Coleman. So the idea is if we’re explaining this second homicide in a flashback, we want to keep it chronological so the reader knows where they are in space and time.
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. Reporting this, were you disappointed the cards and the crosshairs did not have greater significance? Or were you pleased, because you now had hard details upon which to build the mental-health aspect of the piece? I never really thought of them either way. I don’t know if it’s because as a daily news reporter you cover so many terrible things, but I’m kind of used to in a tragic situation knowing that things aren’t always going to make sense. When I was reporting on Tucson, Jared Loughner made all these videos before he did the Giffords shooting, and they’re completely nonsensical. You want to apply some logic to them, but you can’t. So it always made sense to me that there’s nothing behind them. I’m sure Aaron in his mind had an explanation for these things, but like his dad told the sheriff, he probably couldn’t explain them. Psychosis warps the prism through which you’re looking at things. This might’ve made perfect sense to Aaron but I doubt he could have articulated it to anyone.
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. Did you talk to any of these advocates? Why not quote them here? I did talk to advocates, and I talked to a ton of experts. None of whom are directly quoted, but obviously I tried to talk to enough people that I could articulate their positions in a succinct way. I read portions of some books that dealt with these issues and tried to gather up enough knowledge that I could speedily synthesize this information. 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? I imagine it was difficult to distill years of mental health policy into just a few paragraphs – how important was it to not have the larger context interrupt the search narrative? That was probably the hardest part of the story, figuring out how much context to provide. Normally you have one straight narrative that you’re weaving context into. This one has two narrative threads, so the question is, What do you do with the context you need? I initially sprinkled it into the family sections, but that didn’t work, so we decided to do a context section right around the place where you have the sheriff and Natalie separately coming to the realization that something’s really wrong with Aaron. To discuss, specifically, when you have someone who’s so clearly crumbling, what do you do with them? I could’ve written thousands more words on mental health policy, but in terms of readability, I think Deirdre and Doug [McGray], Cal Sunday’s editor in chief, made the correct call to make this as short as possible. So you don’t take people out of the narrative for too long, but give them exactly the amount of context needed to frame that bottom third of the story. What you really needed to know is about the debate over what we do for people who are deteriorating in front of us.
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. A haunting paragraph. What was it like to bring Aaron to life through these brief glimpses? O bviously it’s hard to write a story where your main character can’t talk to you. The pictures were definitely important because it was hard for even the people around Aaron to articulate what he was feeling and what he was thinking. In some cases, they could only articulate the confusion around what he was doing. But if you put the picture of him in high school next to his mug shot then after see the picture of him with the rifle in front of the Boy Scout camp, that is narrative change over time. The contrast is so stark and so rattling that it says a lot without a lot of exposition, for me to just describe how his appearance changed.
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. Can you talk about your decision to use thoughts – Jim here, the sheriff in the passage about the Boy Scouts camp photo – instead of quotes. Assume it’s a tool to keep things at a rolling boil? I t’s the same thinking of trying to embed the thoughts into the narrative as opposed to taking people out of the narrative. There were enough characters in the story that i didn’t need to be a character in the story. If you’re this deep into the story, I don’t want to interrupt the mental movie playing in your head. I don’t watch you switching the channel to me talking to Jim on his couch. I want you to picture Jim talking to Aaron on his couch.
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. This seems almost anticlimactic. Talk about your writing process on this, the seemingly-inevitable-but-still-dramatic conclusion of the long manhunt, and the decision to make it short and almost deadpan. I feel it captured the feeling a lot of people had when the manhunt ended, which was basically, it’s over. I think everyone expected something more spectacular, more action-movie. And they had every reason to, since Aaron had already engaged in a shootout with police and had killed two people. So the sheriff and the deputies and even Aaron’s family were expecting some big shootout that would potentially take down a few people, but that didn’t happen. It ended tragically with Aaron’s death, but it ended very quickly and without the long, drawn-out action-movie battle that I think everyone expected. I tried to reflect that in the writing. I don’t think it was necessarily difficult, one because there were so many compelling details leading up to it that it was OK if the final scene wasn’t this huge dramatic thing. I think, too, when you’re writing nonfiction and you’re doing it for a while, you just accept that things aren’t always going to pan out the way they do in the movies. This was, to a certain degree, poignant to me, to have all this buildup and chaos and to just end in a few seconds. Is that something you’re always looking to do with your writing? I think a lot of the writing choices I make are influenced by how they are told to me by the people who are experiencing them. I think I internalize that and try to reflect it in the writing. Often people tell their own stories beautifully, and I don’t want to mess with that. People often describe things so well that I’m probably not going to top it. Something I’m never going to be able to give you is the experience of a specific feeling at a specific time with a specific person. So the truth of how that situation felt can only be articulated by the person who was there. For certain scenes I try to internalize that in my writing. You’re trying to get your facts straight, but you’re also trying to get how a situation feels right. You don’t necessarily want to make things more dramatic than they were if it didn’t feel that way to the people who actually experienced them. It’s about honesty over pumping things up.
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. This last section almost serves as a post-mortem. Did you look at it as a way to step back one last time from the breathless manhunt narrative and discuss the larger implications? It was tricky because I knew that because this happened several years ago, you kind of want to know as a reader what some of these key people are doing now, right? So there had to be a way to do that, and I played around with a couple of different ways. If this were a movie, you’d just have Aaron’s death at the end and the credits would roll. In print, people want to be brought up to speed. That’s why this is a very brief section that kind of hits on everything you’re wondering about thematically. Yes, the family is still upset about what happened, and still upset for the victims of Aaron. This law did pass in Mendocino County, but it’s not this huge program. It’s not going to solve everything, and it’s not going to change what happened to Aaron. I knew I had to mention the sheriff’s book at some point, and Deirdre had the good idea of using the sheriff’s book to draw us back into the woods for that last scene. He was able to leave us with the thought that this kid wasn’t a monster. He was one of us, and why did this terrible thing need to happen. It allowed us to end on that thematic note that we had been playing throughout the story.