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Man suspected of killing priest was in police custody before slaying

By Ashley Fantz. Greg Botelho and Dan Simon, CNN
January 3, 2014 -- Updated 1612 GMT (0012 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The slain priest was a friend and father figure to many, a parishioner says
  • The Rev. Eric Freed was found dead in the rectory of his Eureka, California, church
  • Authorities don't have a motive for the killing, Eureka's police chief says
  • The suspect, Gary Bullock, had been arrested the previous night for public intoxication

Read this article in Spanish

Eureka, California (CNN) -- Police had a man who is suspected of killing a Catholic priest in his California rectory, but they let him go.

It was mere hours before the slaying of the Rev. Eric Freed that an odd-acting Gary Lee Bullock had been in custody for public intoxication. On New Year's Eve, Humboldt County sheriff's deputies had responded to reports that a person was "acting strangely" and arrested Bullock, taking him to jail. But Bullock, police said, was "rejected" from the facility "due to his erratic behavior."

Bullock, 43, was then moved to a nearby hospital, "where he became more agitated and had to be physically restrained by deputies," police said. Bullock was eventually booked into a jail shortly after 4:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve, staying there for more than eight hours. He was released at 12:43 a.m. on January 1.

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Less than two hours later, police got a call about a suspicious person at St. Bernard Church in Eureka, California. Officers found Bullock there, but he was not taken into custody. He wasn't "intoxicated and did not qualify for an emergency psychological hold," explained Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills.

Instead, police referred Bullock to a shelter, Mills said.

At some point later, a guard at St. Bernard found a person matching Bullock's description on the premises and told him to leave, police said.

Then there was a devastating discovery. Church staff found Freed's body, and police were called at 9 a.m. on New Year's Day. Officers and a parishioner, who happened to be a doctor, determined the priest was dead.

Mills said there were signs of "forced entry" and a struggle. Police said the reverend suffered "blunt force trauma."

An arrest warrant was issued for Bullock, and authorities asked for the public's help in finding him and a 2010 Nissan hybrid belonging to the slain priest.

Bullock apparently fled 45 minutes from the parish to a family member's house in Freed's car, police told CNN. One of Bullock's relatives called police.

"There's no question in our mind he's responsible for this heinous act," Chief Mills told CNN's Jake Tapper on Thursday, citing evidence recovered at the crime scene and interviews with eyewitnesses allegedly linking Bullock to the priest's death.

The county coroner on Thursday ruled the death a homicide. An autopsy is set for Saturday.

Mills said Thursday that authorities don't have a motive for the killing. But the police chief speculated it was probably "a crime of opportunity."

"To me, 'why' is the biggest thing that we would like to establish -- to bring a sense of ease and comfort to the community," Mills said. "But right now, I'm just glad that this incident is done, it is over with, he's in custody (and) the public can take a deep breath."

Killing shakes town, friends, parishioners

Freed's slaying has rattled many in Eureka, including members of Freed's parish and those who knew him from the nearby public university where he taught.

Mourning parishioners and community leaders gathered outside the church Thursday.

John Chiv said that he and other St. Bernard parishioners are shocked and angry. "It's hard to feel Christian because ... it was brutal," Chiv said, adding that Freed was "very jovial ... very accessible (and) very loving."

"We lost a pastor, we lost a friend and, for many of us, he was like a father figure."

Freed had been part of the greater Santa Rosa diocese since 1999, establishing himself as a "great preacher" and an engaging teacher from his work in Catholic schools, said Msgr. Daniel Whelton.

"He was like an old shoe, just an easy person to be with," said the monsignor, who is the diocese's vicar general. "... He was an upbeat person (who) always saw the glass half full. ... It wasn't about him."

The death of the priest was felt beyond the church.

Eureka Mayor Frank Jager said Freed was a personal friend and had been a "tremendous person in this community" since his arrival three years ago.

While he was relatively new to St. Bernard, Freed had already made an impact there and elsewhere around Eureka -- including with the city's Japanese-American community. Freed lived in Japan for many years, Jager told reporters.

"This is an absolutely tremendous loss not only for the St. Bernard's Parish, but for our community generally," the mayor said. "For those of us who believe in prayer, this is the time for that."

"Eric knew as well as anybody just how senseless violence could be," said William Herbrechtsmeier, a professor at Humboldt State University, where Freed was a lecturer. "When a fine person like him is brought down -- that's just tragic."

Herbrechtsmeier said the priest's life extended beyond his work. He was a diehard University of Southern California Trojans fan and loved to watch sports. He wrote a book about the first atomic bomb and also taught about the New Testament.

"He was a really, genuinely warm individual," said professor Stephen Cunha, the chairman of Humboldt State University's religious studies department. "Kind is the word that comes to mind, sensitive."

"He was very well respected, very well liked and had a tremendous working knowledge as well as academic knowledge," Cunha said. "To think that he passed in this way, it's just layers of grief and shock."

"This was not some stuffy clergyman. He was very much someone that you could sit down and speak with. ... He connected with everybody."

Just a few days ago, the priest sent a note to his parishioners, thanking them for their support and prayers and wishing them a merry Christmas and happy New Year.

"I cannot tell you how proud and honored I am to be your pastor," Freed wrote in a letter posted on the parish website. "Our parish is alive, joyful and full of faith, hope and charity that define us as Catholic Christians."

CNN's Ashley Fantz and Greg Botelho reported and wrote this story from Atlanta, and CNN's Dan Simon reported from Eureka. CNN's Augie Martin, Devon Sayers and Suzanne Presto contributed to this report.

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