The death of a beloved Roman Catholic priest in California has been ruled a homicide, the county coroner said Thursday.
The Rev. Eric Freed, 56, was found dead Wednesday in his church’s rectory, spurring a murder investigation and leaving those who knew him in disbelief.
Police on Thursday named a suspect, Gary Lee Bullock, and announced that an arrest warrant for him has been issued. Authorities are looking for Bullock and for Freed’s vehicle, a 2010 Nissan Altima.
Eureka, California, Police Chief Andy Mills did not give a suspected motive for the killing, but described a series of run-ins with the law that Bullock had in the hours before Freed’s death.
On New Year’s Eve, deputies responded to reports of a person “acting strangely” in southern Humboldt County. Bullock was arrested for public intoxication, but because of his erratic behavior was taken to a hospital for an evaluation. He was eventually booked in jail that afternoon.
Bullock was released in the early morning hours of January 1, and less than two hours later police made contact with him again regarding a report of a suspicious person, Mills said.
The man was not intoxicated and did not qualify for a psychological hold, so police referred him to a shelter, Mills said.
At some point in the hours after that, a guard at Freed’s church found a person matching Bullock’s description on the premises and told him to leave the property, police said.
Freed’s body was found later that morning.
Mayor Frank Jager said Freed was a personal friend and a “tremendous person in this community” since his arrival three years ago. The St. Bernard Parish website featured a cross and the words, “Rest in Peace” above Freed’s name.
An autopsy will be performed Saturday, Humboldt County Coroner David Parris said.
“He was a really, genuinely warm individual,” said professor Stephen Cunha, the chairman of Humboldt University’s religious studies department where Freed taught for more than 10 years. “… Kind is the word that comes to mind, sensitive.”
Noting that students at the state university loved Freed — who was also deeply involved in that school’s Catholic student group, the Newman Center — Cunha added: “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.”
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, as 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.”
Freed’s ties to Humbodt State went back even longer. A guest lecturer, he wrote a book about the first atomic bomb and also taught about the New Testament, connecting with Christians and non-Christians alike.
“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.”
By Greg Botelho and Suzanne Presto
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