Discuss as:

California priest murdered in church beaten to death: autopsy

Courtesy of Bernard Fosnaugh

The Rev. Eric Freed was found dead in the rectory of his church in Eureka, Calif., on Jan. 1.

A popular Catholic priest viciously murdered in his California church on New Year’s Day was clubbed to death with a wooden stake and metal gutter pipe, authorities said.

The Rev. Eric Freed, 56, died of blunt force trauma, although officials in the small, north coast city of Eureka declined to provide additional details Tuesday.

Police were called to St. Bernard Catholic Church, where Freed had served for the past five years, on the morning of Jan. 1. Staff found Freed in the rectory around 9 a.m. after he failed to show up for Mass.

Authorities identified a suspect, Gary Lee Bullock, and charged him with a special allegation of torture, as well as burglary, arson and auto theft.

Uncredited / AP

Police have identified Gary Lee Bullock as the suspect in the killing of a respected priest and educator who was found dead in a church rectory in Northern California on New Year's Day.

In an unsettling coincidence, local law enforcement said they had two separate run-ins with Bullock in the hours before Freed was found dead.

On New Year’s Eve, Humboldt County Sheriff’s deputies arrested Bullock for public intoxication. They said they tried to take him to a hospital for an evaluation, but he was acting too “erratic.”

They booked him into Humboldt County jail, but released him at 12:43 a.m. Jan. 1. About two hours later, Eureka police were called to the grounds at St. Bernard after a passing security guard said he saw a man acting oddly.

“He heard him howling,” said Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills, referring to Bullock.

Mills said the investigating officer interviewed the man, conducted a field sobriety test and then referred him to a nearby shelter. But about an hour later, the guard, who didn't work for the church, saw the same man and told him to leave the area. He didn’t call police that time.

The man matched Bullock’s description.

After the discovery of Freed’s body later that morning, deputies issued an arrest warrant for Bullock. The priest’s Nissan Altima hybrid was also reported missing.

Authorities had already been in contact with Bullock’s family, and when he arrived at their home, they turned him in, police said.

In addition, a surveillance camera from the church pinned Bullock to the scene of the crime, police said.

Mills declined to provide a motive for the murder, but said evidence at the church rectory shows “he attempted to set the house on fire.”

Bullock pleaded not guilty Monday and was being held in Humboldt County jail. His bail was set at $1.2 million.

A Catholic priest in California is found dead inside of a Eureka church rectory. KIEM's Robyn Ridpath reports.

Some residents have expressed frustration in hearing police had been holding the suspect — and ended up letting him go.

The Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office and Eureka police say they had to release Bullock because he showed no serious criminal behavior that warranted keeping him.

Mourners, meanwhile, remembered Freed during a packed funeral Mass on Monday. Another memorial was scheduled for Tuesday.

Eureka Mayor Frank Jager, a St. Bernard parishioner, said Freed was a compassionate member of the community, known for lending an ear to those who needed one.

Raised in Covina, Calif., Freed was an unwavering USC fan, studied theology in Italy and spent two decades in Japan teaching high school. He stayed connected with the Japanese community in the Bay Area, and friends say he even wrote his homilies in Japanese.

Those homilies, Jager said, were always filled with hope.

“He had an attitude that things were going to get better,” Jager added. “For many, he’ll always be more than just a parish priest.”