EUREKA, Calif. — Police arrested a suspect Thursday in the killing of a respected priest and educator who was found dead on New Year’s Day in a church rectory in Northern California.
Gary Lee Bullock, 43, of Redway, was taken into custody by Humboldt County deputies in the killing of the Rev. Eric Freed, according to a statement by Eureka police.
Police said Bullock had been in and out of police custody in the hours before Freed died and had been sent to a hospital for an exam because of his erratic behavior.
Officials were still seeking a motive in the killing. Freed’s body was found at St. Bernard Church after he failed to show up for morning Mass.
Bullock was initially arrested Tuesday for public intoxication in Garberville and taken 67 miles north to jail in Eureka.
His erratic behavior led police to send him to a hospital for an evaluation. He became agitated and deputies had to restrain him. He was booked into jail for about eight hours then released shortly after midnight.
At 2 a.m. Wednesday, Eureka police responded to a call about a suspicious person a couple blocks from the jail and about 5 yards from the site where Freed was found. Police said Bullock wasn’t intoxicated then and didn’t qualify for an emergency psychological hold.
Officers referred him to an emergency shelter for the night.
Later, a security guard heard noise near the church and went to investigate. He saw a man matching Bullock’s description and after a short conversation told him to leave the property, police said.
It is not clear exactly when or how Freed was killed. His body showed signs of blunt force trauma. Investigators also found indications of forced entry and a struggle.
An arrest warrant was issued Thursday for Bullock, who was found again in the Garberville area. Freed’s car also was discovered.
“The reverend was a victim of a violent crime,” Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills said. “We’re not sure on the motive but don’t believe it was a robbery at this point.”
Under California law, people who are considered a danger to themselves or others can be held involuntarily for mental health treatment for up to 72 hours, said Nicholas Pacilio, a spokesman for the state attorney general.
Law enforcement officials must have probable cause to believe someone meets the criteria before taking them to a hospital or mental health facility for an evaluation. A mental health professional then decides if the person warrants a mental health hold.
If someone is held longer than 72 hours, they are entitled to a lawyer and a hearing before a judge.
Freed had taught classes on religion at Humboldt State University since 2007, including “Introduction to Christianity” and a class on Japanese calligraphy. Humboldt State is a small university of 8,000 students near Redwood National Park, on the edge of the Pacific Ocean.
Karli Kauffman was one of his students. She drove from San Francisco to Eureka after learning about the killing and visited an impromptu shrine of flowers and candles outside the rectory. Her rosary was pressed to her lips, which moved silently in prayer.
“He was my mentor,” said Kauffman, who was inspired by Freed to switch majors to religious studies. “He taught me to have faith in humanity. To have someone kill a man who taught that and truly lived it every day makes me sick to my stomach.”
Still, she said Freed would want her to forgive his killer.
Yellow crime scene tape surrounded the rectory and church, with its Gothic windows and towering spire. Evergreen boughs from Christmas still graced the front doors.
Laurie Lynch grew up with Freed as her parish priest in Arcata. After he moved to Eureka, Lynch asked him to perform her marriage ceremony.
“It’s a horrible, horrible loss for everyone in our community,” she said. “He was a great man.”
Colleague William Herbrechtsmeier described his friend as a man of keen intellect who had a robust laugh and wide-ranging interests, including sports.
“It’s just horrid that someone of his quality would be snuffed out in this way,” he said.
Freed grew up in Southern California and graduated from Loyola Marymount University. He completed his graduate studies in linguistics while in Italy, where he also learned how to speak Italian.
Freed also worked on a book related to the bombing of Hiroshima, helping a survivor translate haikus about the experience and providing commentary. When the book was published a few years ago, Humboldt State held a conference on genocide and violence.
Humboldt County is known for dairy farming, commercial fishing, a declining logging industry and marijuana and methamphetamine production.
Abdollah reported from Los Angeles. Contributing to this report were AP news researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York, and reporters Jason Dearen in San Francisco and Don Thompson in Sacramento.