In late summer, if you walk west along Madsen Lane in Fort Bragg and follow the dirt road to Madsen’s Hole you can splash across the Noyo River without getting your feet wet. From there it’s a short bushwhack to the railroad tracks then a couple of miles up the rail line to the six mile marker. From there, ascend the hill to the north beneath redwood and fir. You might find tiny relics where someone camped. Higher on the steep hill you’ll encounter remnants of PVC pipe. Look closely, you might notice where the pipe’s been cut. Next, you can’t help but stumble upon the terraces dug out of the hillside. You’re getting very close to where Jere Melo was gunned down by Aaron Bassler.
If you want a detailed account of the Aaron Bassler case turn to Out There in the Woods by Steve Sparks and Sheriff Tom Allman. If you do nothing more than pick the book up, take a good look at the photos on the back cover. They show Aaron Bassler at age eighteen and then at thirty-four.
The difference between the photos boils down to one thing: mental illness. Some public officials claim otherwise for a variety of reasons, but they are deluding themselves and the public they speak to and for. Whether Aaron Bassler’s behavior stemmed from a bad combination of drugs, whether or not he displayed these abnormal behaviors while under some sort of scrutiny in the county jail, are somewhat irrelevant arguments. Aaron Bassler’s repeated behaviors as an adult were outside the accepted norms of behavior in our society. That alone should have gotten him placed within the mental health system.
That is, if we had a fully developed mental health system. When I was a child in the 1950s and ‘60s, Ukiah not only housed a jail it had an even larger state hospital. My mother worked as a psychiatric social worker there. After the state hospital closed, the number of psychiatrists and highly trained social workers decreased. Mom’s caseload expanded to cover both Mendocino and Lake Counties.
Today, the entirety of Mendocino County’s mental health services is governed by a MSW, someone with a master’s degree in social work, not a doctor, not a psychiatric doctor. That MSW effectively serves at the whim of the county’s chief executive officer, who happens to be a nurse, but is not a trained psychiatrist. A few years back the county CEO, under the guise of budget cuts, directed the county jail to deprive all new inmates of their previously prescribed medications for two weeks. It does not take two weeks for most drugs to leave an individual’s system. On the other hand an inmate who has a doctor’s prescription discontinued for two weeks is susceptible to all sorts of physical and/or mental maladies.
What happens if an inmate is still in the county jail after two weeks? The medical staff has been directed to then supply the inmate with the cheapest possible alternative in their drug category. For instance, an inmate/patient previously on Cyprexa is given Thorazine, an inmate accustomed to Zoloft is dropped down to Elavil.
Readers need to be aware that the policy regarding county jail inmates and their prescriptions was not made by law enforcement. At a Tuesday, Feb. 5th meeting with local supporters of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Sheriff Allman spoke empathetically on this subject he knows well. When queried on the issue of gun control, Allman’s response these days is, “I’ll talk about guns if we give equal time to mental health.”