ANOTHER PLEA FOR HELP
By James Bassler, Father of Aaron
Published in Fort Bragg Advocate October 2011
(Background: James Bassler tried to get treatment for his mentally ill son Aaron but as is often the case, the Mendocino County mental health system refused to help. Aaron shot and killed Fort Bragg Former Mayor and City Councilman Jere Melo before escaping to the woods. Eventually, Aaron was tracked down by police and killed. In this op-ed James Bassler recites his attempts to get help and discusses the need to implement Laura’s Law so this doesn’t happen to others. –Mental Illness Policy Org. ed.)
Last February, I made pleas for help for Aaron’s mental condition to: County Mental Health, the jail, and the court system, because our family thought he was a danger to himself and others. I was not heard. I now plead for people in our community to ask the County Supervisors to implement Laura’s Law, a law that would have provided the help Aaron needed and the safety that the public deserves.
Every member of our community must be asking how and why did these tragedies happen. My family and I are in the unfortunately sad, but unique position of having seen something bad coming, and were unable to find anyone who would help him. There were many contributing factors. I’ll skip over the fact that there is no funding for mental health care, that hard drugs are so prevalent in our community, that we live in a culture of marijuana, and the fact guns are everywhere.
I first noticed something going wrong with Aaron in his late teens and remember my interactions with him, County Mental Health and Law Enforcement. It would have been nice if we could have found help then but he was not willing, and he was not any more dangerous at that time than a lot of young people. His arrest record from the mid to late 90’s is concerning and at least one of those, should have brought him a psychiatric evaluation. Without that, these arrests and court cases could not have foretold events of a decade later. In fact, the record shows an eight-year gap with no arrests.
Only his family can tell you what was going on in those eight years. For us during this time, his illness became more and more evident. Because of his delusions and paranoia, he was unable to seek, let alone get, or hold a job. For the same reasons, even if he had money, he could not have rented a place to live. We tried to provide work for him that he was capable of, and we provided him a place to live. His family suffered greatly with his illness during this period, but we kept him from causing problems in the community. We would have liked some sort of help from mental health services, but none came because he would not admit a problem. He was considered an adult even though he could not function as one. We cared about him and we did what we could on our own. He was a big problem, but at this time he was not perceived as dangerous.
In 2009 Aaron was arrested for throwing what looked like explosives into the Chinese Consulate in San Francisco. Instead of explosives, the items were writings and drawings of a Martian military, Chinese weapon designs, and a black jumpsuit with red stars on it. They recognized that he suffered from a mental illness and he was enrolled in a pre-trial diversion program that included regular appointments with a doctor. Aaron reluctantly complied with this. His delusions and bizarre behavior were still apparent to us, but I guess he was able to keep it from the doctors. Since his paranoia caused him to be terrified of being in a room with strangers, he did not want to go back to jail or to see any more doctors, so he stayed out of trouble.
The real significant change in his behavior started in late summer of 2010 when he became more and more prone to outbursts of anger. Lots of things were going bad for him. The biggest problem came when he learned he would have to move from his home because of a change in ownership of the property. He had worked for years to make it his home, and it was a special private place where he could get away from people. Whenever I entered his home, it was both shocking and heartbreaking, a little like an insane asylum without any staff. His frustration with losing his home, and his dire financial situation put him under a lot of stress and it came out in angry outbursts. He was drinking more, doing more drugs, and spiraling out of control. There was not much we could do and he was getting very scary. After reading Sergeant Lee’s story in the Advocate I think he would back me up on that, especially if he knew all that we knew.
In February 2011, he crashed his truck into the middle school tennis courts. By then we had become so afraid of what he might do that we really slept good for a change, knowing he was in jail, and that he couldn’t hurt himself or others. Our family contacted Mental Health, the jail and the court telling them of Aaron’s symptoms, our concern that he was a danger to self and others, and asking for a psychiatric evaluation and treatment. At this point I was shocked that no one listened and that we have a system of government that is so inaccessible and careless about public safety.
What could I do? I knew he was becoming more and more dangerous. The system failed or more accurately, there is no system at all to deal with a situation like this. We live in a democracy and if the system is not working, it’s the voters in the community that aren’t paying enough attention. Government can’t be allowed to run government for government. In a democracy the public needs to run government for the public good and for public safety. I hope the community steps up to the plate on this issue, and asks our supervisors to implement Laura’s Law, and stays involved, because if government does anything at all on its own, it will protect government more than the public.
It is clear to me that Laura’s Law, if in place several months ago, would have prevented these tragedies. Nevada County provides a good model for us to follow in implementing this program that saves money by fewer hospitalizations and incarcerations. I am pleading with concerned members of our community to put their minds behind making a better system. Make sure our county government does something besides circle the wagons for their own protection instead of doing something meaningful. I hope enough ears hear my plea this time.
Here is letter James Bassler wrote in response to Mendocino Mental Health Department trying to deflect responsibility. Mental Health Departments oppose Assisted Outpatient Treatment (Laura's Law, Kendra's Law, etc.) because it requires them to focus resources on the most seriously ill. They would rather not serve this population. Shifting them to criminal justice system enables them to save money in their own budget, and continue to serve the largest numbers versus most seriously ill. -ed)
October 8, 2011
Board of Supervisors
501 Low Gap Road
Ukiah, CA 95482
Subject: Clarification about Laura’s Law and Aaron Bassler
I would like to try and clear up what I believe is misinformation about Laura’s Law and how it might have affected my son Aaron’s life. County employees have now done exactly what I predicted when I wrote my article for the Advocate News a week ago. They are trying to protect themselves and don’t want to do anything meaningful to protect the public or help people in crisis. They decided to insert their own plan to divert attention and confuse what was intended to be a serious look at Laura’s Law.
They are also confusing Aaron’s sporadic alcohol and drug abuse with the lifetime mental disease schizophrenia. Ironically when I first mentioned his drug abuse I thought I was warning parents and others to be careful not to assume drug abuse, and to look deeper for signs of other serious mental illnesses. I myself was guilty of this with Aaron at first. The fact that the County is using this confusion to muddy the waters of LL is more proof of the need for LL. The County is admitting they can’t be expected to make an accurate diagnosis. They don’t have the money or facilities to do that perhaps. I want to point out that the Federal Court system in San Francisco got it right; they decided he needed mental help not AA meetings or drug rehab.
The fact that Laura’s Law, as implemented in Nevada County, and similar laws enacted across the nation have proven to be effective in every measure including saving money, should be important to the BOS. As should the fact that so many respected organizations support LL, such as the National Sheriffs Association, California Sheriffs Association, and California Police Chiefs Association. The NSA Resolution is attached. The thought that County employees could come up with a better plan on their own is improbable.
Protecting the public and people’s civil rights by having more of a community focus may be complex, but that complexity is what makes Laura’s Law so successful. Nevada County has provided a model to follow; and why is it assumed our County is incapable? To give up on public safety because some see it as too complex seems like bad policy, when there are so many intelligent people in our community.
One more thing on Aaron’s mental state in February when I wrote that letter to the County psychiatrist and the court (I’ll provide a copy if you haven’t seen it); I believe it was dismissed, thinking I was a dumb fisherman, and I very well may be, but I do possess some common sense. I have enough sense to know when a ship is sinking. I sent out a May Day on the appropriate channels; when no pumps or help came, my family and I abandoned ship. The fact that there is no one listening to the emergency channel and there is no procedure for anyone else to get off the ship, resulted tragically in Matt Coleman and Jere Melo going down with Aaron’s ship. The tragedy is that there is no common sense to our current system, but the real tragedy is that there is so much County government opposition to common sense.
Attachment: National Sheriffs Association Resolution