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The Madman In the Woods: Mental Illness As Boogeyman

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.


  1. D.D. Wysocki wrote:

    I guess this is just a Me Too, but I agree with all of this. Unless you’re deeply schizophrenic, even ‘crazy’ people have logical motives for their actions. Scapegoating people who are having a hard time at life is similar to blaming the poor for crime; thinking it’s an immutable pathology instead of something determined by genetic and social circumstance. And as a society we can certainly change social circumstance, even if we aren’t.

    Tuesday, August 30, 2011 at 3:42 pm | Permalink
  2. Pete Jordan wrote:

    It’s a triple win really: create an atmosphere of fear (always handy); other the perp as crazy (because us decent, sane people would never, could never, do anything like that); remove any danger of due process getting in the way, because (as you wrote) if someone is locked up up as sick, locked up to *help* them of course, you need never, ever let them go until they’re better. Whatever you choose for that to mean.

    Tuesday, August 30, 2011 at 3:48 pm | Permalink
  3. James Reffell wrote:

    In this case, though, the suspect has a history of actions that seem pretty irrational:

    “In 2009, Bassler faced federal charges after allegedly throwing packages into the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco on four occasions, bringing out a bomb squad each time. The packages contained drawings of red stars and writings that referred to the “Martian military” and Chinese weapons designs, investigators said.

    Bassler completed a pretrial diversion program and the charges were dropped, records show.”

    I wonder if the pretrial diversion program was something that provided mental health services, and what happened there.

    Tuesday, August 30, 2011 at 11:03 pm | Permalink
  4. s.e. smith wrote:

    James, there’s been a lot of coverage of his mental health status since I wrote this piece, and a lot of it makes me extremely uncomfortable. This piece in the Press Democrat sums up his family’s claims about what happened in his previous interactions with law enforcement. I must say it certainly is fascinating to see people in Mendocino County caring about access to mental health services all of a sudden when it’s been an ongoing issue for over a decade with absolutely no traction.

    I also don’t quite understand the point you’re trying to make here; Bassler was clearly and demonstrably mentally ill and I’m not claiming otherwise in this piece. What I am highlighting is the way his mental illness is weaponised both as a tool to frighten people, and as a distancing tactic to argue that no ‘sane person’ would do things like being involved in a grow operation and shooting people. While it’s true that this could have been prevented if Bassler had received adequate mental health care, the larger issue, of increasing violence and social problems caused by criminalisation, is not going away.

    Lee, I’d appreciate it if you could keep speculation out of comments here; I don’t really see how your comment adds anything to the discussion.

    Friday, September 2, 2011 at 10:18 am | Permalink
  5. Stella wrote:

    Thank you for such a powerful explanation of the issue – you’ve made it very clear to me how damaging that portrayal of mental health can be – in a way I’d never really come to grips with before. I feel more educated and aware and I’m very thankful for the work you’ve put in to make that happen.

    Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 2:42 am | Permalink
  6. kiturak wrote:

    This is so perfectly put. Yeah, something awful happened? Blame it on “craziness” because you’re too lazy and cruel to care, and the people it hurts are none of *your* concern, after all. And so, instead of solving one problem, we fuel another.

    Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 5:17 am | Permalink
  7. Susan wrote:

    And then people who act oddly in public get shot; meanwhile, anyone who can act “normal” (whatever that is) can get away with murder. Great post.

    Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 6:18 am | Permalink
  8. samanthab wrote:

    D.D.Wysocki, I’m not a big fan of your “Unless…” there. Lord knows what qualifies as “deeply” schizophrenic or sort of one foot in the pool schizophrenic, and what you’ve done there may be reassuring to yourself- I’m mentally ill but I’m not like *those* mentally ill people! It’s pretty unkind, however, to that category of mentally ill people that you’ve just thrown under the bus. I guess they can be officially classified as the mentally ill that don’t make any goddamned sense ever? Or they could be if they existed, given that I’ve talked to a decent share of mentally ill people in my life and never found one that was completely out of touch with every and all strand of logic.

    Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Permalink
  9. Yeah, we have a weird thing going on locally too, up in Asheville: A mother who hacked her kids to death is claiming a ghost did it. You have to admit, that’s an odd one.

    What upsets me is, its well-known that she was on meds, and they were recently changed… and I wanna know WHICH ONES. Was this attack on her children a side effect? Sounds like it, since there is no prior history of violent behavior. They will easily blame her being “crazy” without delving into whether the treatment for being “crazy” was the actual cause of this incident.

    Was the ‘cure worse than the disease’?

    Good post, we need to talk about this stuff in depth, whenever it happens.

    Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 4:22 pm | Permalink
  10. Lee wrote:

    Near as I can tell, there was no crop.

    Wednesday, August 31, 2011 at 8:32 pm | Permalink
  11. Jo wrote:

    What kills me is I want to blog about this article SO badly but I can’t because I’ve had to go back into the closet about my mental illness for my safety and my family’s 🙁

    Friday, September 2, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Permalink
  12. Faycin A Croud wrote:

    The one fact that remains constant is that only dangerous people who are mentally ill ever get any press. The majority of mentally ill people are more likely to be victims than victimizers. The majority of mentally ill people are also not delusional. Many suffer with mood disorders such as major depression and bipolar disorder, which comes in varying degrees of severity. Almost all mentally ill people are marginalized. Most of us just want to be treated with respect and to be given affordable, compassionate assistance for the conditions we live with.
    This is not to say that there are not any dangerous mentally ill people. Just to say that they’re the only ones who get any press. They’re much more “interesting” than us run of the mill “nut jobs.”

    Sunday, September 4, 2011 at 8:33 pm | Permalink
  13. Mejoff wrote:

    The same happened with the Norwegian shootings/bombing recently. Even sensible liberal papers were publishing opinion pieces vehemently asserting that his Brehvik’s crimes were those of a ‘madman’, as opposed to calculated ideological actions, thus simultaneously taking the pressure and responsibility from the Right, and maximising the stigma of mental illness across the board.

    Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  14. Rikibeth wrote:

    The way I like to phrase it about the random/personal/political violence is “zie may be crazy, I’m not hir doctor. But I’m crazy, and what I do when I’m at my craziness is take inadvisable road trips and spend more money than I have buying presents for people. If zie’s crazy, it’s crazy with a side order of ASSHOLE.”

    In this case, the potential crazy is largely irrelevant; as you said, the shooting was ECONOMIC in motive, and, in that light, sensibly motivated.

    Tuesday, September 13, 2011 at 6:02 am | Permalink