I locked my house last night, for the first time since I moved in. I had to hunt for the key to the back door, because I tossed it in the back of my desk when my landlord handed it to me; ‘I’ll never need this,’ I said. ‘Who locks their doors?’ I checked the windows, pulling them tight until I heard the latches catch, and wriggled the doorknobs to be sure they wouldn’t give way.
My small town is in the depths of a crisis, ever since early Saturday morning when Jere Melo, a sitting city council member and former mayor, was shot to death in the woods while investigating a suspected illegal marijuana plantation in his capacity as a private security contractor for a timber management company (city council members have other jobs, here, too). What he and a friend found was an opium plantation, oddly, and a man with a high powered rifle who fired on them. Jere’s partner ran for help, fortunately encountered a speeder, a maintenance car used on the train tracks, and was taken back to town, setting off an explosive series of events. Within hours, the town was crawling with law enforcement; still is, because they still haven’t found the shooter. Helicopters hover overhead and police cars creep down the streets, officers peering tightly out of the windows.
When you live in a town of 7,000 and a major civic figure is murdered, it creates a rolling stone that quickly becomes unstoppable. People are angry. People are lashing out. The mood downtown is tense, heavy with waiting. People gather in the coffeehouse and on the corner, muttering. They Tweet about vigilantes and how maybe we need them, now. Northern California’s drug war has come home to roost and people raise questions about an earlier murder, another man killed on forestland. They talk in the streets; this is what it looks like when a rural community ‘comes together.’
‘They should have locked that psycho up,’ a man is saying as I edge past him on my way into the post office.
‘I hope they get him,’ his companion agrees, nodding firmly. His jacket bulges at his waistline.
The killer, you see, is psycho. He’s that crazy guy in the woods. He’s a madman. People were saying that almost immediately. They almost always do, after a death, especially a high profile, senseless death, a death that involves someone important, someone who should not have died. He was crazy. Insane. Psycho killer.
Aaron Bassler, the suspected shooter, tried and convicted of crazy in absentia. His photograph is in the window of every business and the police department warns us to be cautious and law enforcement traipses through my back yard, down the railroad tracks that run behind my house. I lock my doors because they tell me he is ‘armed and dangerous’ and because I know well how desperation works, and he is a desperate man. He has shot someone, possibly the worst person he could have shot, and the entire town is loaded for bear. Desperation makes you do things that are not…wise. So I lock my doors and leave the windows latched.
He was crazy, they tell me. Protecting a grow, though, isn’t all that crazy. These armed men in the woods, more and more now, guarding bigger and bigger grows, they are protecting their livelihood. A local business owner and I talk; ‘he’s not crazy,’ she says. ‘If someone walked into my store and told me ‘that’s it, you’re done,’ I don’t know what I’d do. My business is legal, you know, but it’s my life.’ Firing on people who trespass on your grow, that’s not crazy. That’s sensible, horrifying, but sensible, because you’re sitting on hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of dollars. You don’t want the forest ranger, the hiker, going back to town and picking up the phone; ‘hey, sheriff, I think I found a grow. Yeah, it’s in my GPS, let me give you the coordinates.’
Helicopters hover in the sky here often, especially in autumn. Harvest season. They look for those cleared patches in the woods, the flush of heat that betrays a grow house, the workers scurrying on the ground to bring in the crop. Bringing in the crop sounds like old-timey country haying, everyone riding wagons and swinging their legs off the side and sharing sodas at the fountain at the end of the day. It’s not like that, you know. Bringing in the crop is big, big business, business you guard with weapons and attack dogs. Bringing in the crop is about baling those sticky parcels of green and getting them ready to ship out of state, where the prices are high, while the sheriff’s deputies stalk you from overhead.
People like to say that Jere never went into the woods armed. He was an old-school timber man, worked in logging for years, an upstanding citizen. He wasn’t armed on Saturday but his companion was. Having a gun won’t save you, when someone else gets the draw first. Some of us don’t bother to go into the woods at all, now. It’s too dangerous.
They said he was crazy, the madman in the woods, and this morning the big regional paper prints a story; lo and behold, Aaron’s father says he was denied access to mental health services. He ‘refused to seek help,’ that term always said with a sneer about crazy people. His family asked for assistance but law enforcement here aren’t trained to deal with that kind of thing so he fell through the cracks. Four months ago, he took to the woods to tend his crop. Four days ago, he shot Jere Melo multiple times. His father suggests he doesn’t think Aaron will ‘throw down his gun.’ He hopes no one else gets hurt. Cynically I wonder if that applies to his son, too.
Mendocino County’s mental health services have been in a state of crisis for some time. Even people actively seeking help don’t necessarily get it. Aaron is a casualty of a larger system that generates human garbage and acts shocked, simply shocked, when horrible, terrible, wrong, bad things happen. I keep coming back to this, though: protecting his grow wasn’t so crazy. I might have done the same thing, in his position, panicked and fired. But I’m crazy too, so what do I know.
‘It’s such a cheap way out,’ she says. ‘Why are they building his own defense for him?’
There was a story on NPR this morning about Jared Loughner, suing over forcible medication. His condition, we are informed, is deteriorating. I wonder if people know what happens when you are crazy and you commit a crime, when you are mentally ill and deemed unable to stand trial. I think people believe that you are allowed to roam free; you ‘get off.’ They send you to a hospital, you know. A place where they try to make you fit, fix you up, clean you up, so they can prop you up in the dock to face justice.
And if you never get ‘fit,’ that’s where you stay. The hospital. You float in a limbo, too sick to stand trial, too dangerous to be released. They talk about wanting to ‘lock the psycho up and throw away the key’ and that’s what they do, when you are mentally ill and you commit a crime. That’s the cheap way out. Your defense is built for you. You’re immured in a hospital somewhere and forgotten about. The person (people) you shot are still dead. You’ll be remembered as the madman in the woods, the crazed gunman.
The next time someone commits a violent crime, they’ll say ‘he must have been crazy.’
No sane person would do that.
They tell us to be afraid of the madman in the woods. Manufacture fear with a grim headshot and helicopters buzzing oppressively overhead. Be afraid. Be very afraid of the crazy person.