By Laird Harrison
OAKLAND, Calif (Reuters) - Police combed a dense forest in northern California on Tuesday in search of an accused opium poppy grower suspected in the fatal ambush shooting of a local politician.
The slaying on Saturday of Jere Melo, 69, a veteran city councilman in Fort Bragg, California, was the second shooting death this month of a property manager patrolling forest lands in Mendocino County for illegal drug farms, said Fort Bragg Mayor Dave Turner.
"Everybody is deeply concerned," he told Reuters.
Melo, who also worked as an independent forest management consultant, was slain after stumbling onto an illegal opium poppy farm in a privately owned timber area near Fort Bragg, about 130 miles north of San Francisco, authorities said.
Melo was working with an unidentified colleague to investigate a report of a marijuana farm when he was shot, according to the Mendocino County Sheriff's Department.
The colleague, who escaped and called for help, identified the gunman as Aaron Bassler, a local transient with a history of erratic behavior, sheriff's Captain Kurt Smallcomb said.
Evidence suggests Bassler was growing poppies for opium, Smallcomb said. "These were not for the flower industry."
Bassler was previously arrested on suspicion of running his truck into a tennis court and throwing literature into the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, Smallcomb said.
Some 30 law enforcement officers joined in the manhunt for Bassler on Tuesday. Sheriff's deputies were assisted by local police along with state and federal personnel, Smallcomb said.
Separately on August 11, Matthew Coleman, 45, who worked as a property manager for the Mendocino Land Trust, was found dead from multiple gunshot wounds near his car after patrolling a forest 20 miles north of Fort Bragg.
Reports of opium-growing operations are rare in Mendocino, Smallcomb said.
"In 28 years, I have seen two previous grows," he said.
But incidents involving marijuana farms surface daily in the Mendocino woods, Smallcomb added.
While others have been shot in the past, most of those were attributed to conflicts between growers, Turner said.
Melo had been a City Council member since 1996 and served as mayor from 2000 to 2004. He led fund-raising to build a football stadium for Fort Bragg High School.
"There was no harder worker for this community than Jere Melo," Turner said.
(Editing by Steve Gorman and Peter Bohan)