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Vt. police arrest murder suspect

Aaron Bassett had returned to Hernando this summer. He was working as a cook in Brooksville.

By JONATHAN ABEL
Published September 29, 2006


SPRING HILL - On Tuesday, Vermont State Police found the body of 32-year-old James Saunders in a shallow grave behind some rental apartments.

Authorities say he stole drugs from a small gang. He was lured into a car and beaten to death.

The murder, which took place in May but wasn't discovered until this week, shook the tiny town of Vershire, Vt., population 639.

It also triggered a nationwide manhunt that has led to six arrests - including one in Hernando County on Thursday morning.

That's where Aaron Bassett, 28, came to make a fresh start this summer, and it's where he was picked up on charges of first-degree murder and kidnapping.

"There were no indications - none whatsoever," said Peggy Culhane, 50, who was driving Bassett home from work at the time of his arrest. He had been living at her house; she considered him like a son. "He's a good kid that got mixed up with the wrong people."

Police made five arrests Wednesday in connection with the case, including two in North Carolina, Leodor Rousseau, 33, and Joshua Darling, 21. Police say they paid two Vermont teenagers $500 to find Saunders.

The teens recruited a third teenager, and they lured Saunders to Rousseau and Darling with the promise of a drug deal.

Saunders was beaten to death inside Rousseau's sport utility vehicle. Police say Bassett was also in the vehicle and took part in the slaying.

On Wednesday, Rousseau and Darling were charged with murder, kidnapping, and attempted assault and robbery. The three juveniles were arrested in Vermont and charged with kidnapping.

Also on Wednesday, investigators got a warrant for Bassett and tracked him to Hernando County.

Vermont State Police called Victoria's Steak House and Lounge in Brooksville, where Bassett worked as a cook, to see when he got off work.

The roadside restaurant's owner, Victoria Gibson, didn't think much of it. She just assumed Bassett owed child support.

But on Thursday, when she heard that her cook was charged with murder, she started to tremble.

"There's so many times it was just us girls here, and he'd be here," she said.

Bassett had been a good worker and never caused any trouble, Gibson said, though he was arrested last month when deputies responded to an alarm at the restaurant.

They found that Bassett had an outstanding warrant from Pinellas County for driving with a suspended license. He was taken off to jail.

When he returned to work a week later, Gibson said, Bassett wanted to be taken off the books.

"He said he didn't want anyone to know he was working here," she recalled.

He was supposed to start work at the new Carrabba's Italian Grill in Spring Hill next month.

"We haven't heard word one bad about him down here," said Sr. Sgt. Joseph Leahy of the Vermont State Police, one of two investigators who came to Florida for the case.

Lt. Brian Miller, also of the Vermont State Police, said Bassett came to Hernando for family reasons and not necessarily to flee.

"He wanted to start a new life and forget about what happened," Miller guessed.

Bassett had been living in Hernando for a few years until he decided to move to New Hampshire in 2005.

He spent a year in New Hampshire, worked in a bakery, got charged with cocaine possession, and then decided to move back to Hernando this summer.

He asked to live with Culhane and her family because his mother was getting involved in a new relationship and he wanted to give her space.

Bassett never drove to work, so Culhane would come pick him up at night and drive him the half-hour home.

Wednesday night, she got him at Victoria's, then went for a drive where they just talked. Culhane said they stopped for cinnamon doughnuts, a Coke and a long talk.

They were on U.S. 19 headed for home, just after midnight, when Culhane saw five patrol cars pull behind her.

She and Bassett were ordered to stick their hands out the window. Then a deputy told Culhane why Bassett was being arrested.

Culhane almost fainted.

This was the man who would cook dinner for the family and give them his small paycheck from the restaurant to help out and play cards with them at night.

As they took him from the car, Bassett turned to Culhane and said he was sorry.

"The human side has to be told," Culhane pleaded Thursday. "Otherwise people will think he's a monster."

Bassett was being held at the Hernando County Jail without bail.

Reporter Mark Davis of the Valley News in Vermont contributed to this report. Jonathan Abel can be reached at jabel@sptimes.com or 352 754-6114.

[Last modified September 28, 2006, 22:53:53]


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