Suspect arrested in murder of California priest

Details: 

Authorities have nabbed a man they believe killed a Roman Catholic priest during a “violent struggle” in a Northern California church rectory, police said.

The suspect, Gary Lee Bullock, was arrested early Thursday afternoon in the southern part of Humboldt County near Garberville, said Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills.

“There’s no question in our mind he’s responsible for this heinous act,” Mills told CNN’s Jake Tapper, citing evidence recovered at the crime scene and interviews with eyewitnesses allegedly linking Bullock to the death of the Rev. Eric Freed.

Hours earlier, Mills announced that an arrest warrant had been issued for the 43-year-old Bullock and asked for the public’s help in tracking him down as well as a 2010 Nissan hybrid belonging to the slain priest.

Freed’s body was found inside the rectory of Eureka’s St. Bernard Church having suffered “blunt force trauma.

His gruesome death was ruled a homicide by the county coroner on Thursday and a full autopsy was set for Saturday.

The case rattled many in and around the North Coast city whether they were members of the parish where Freed served, part of the nearby public university where he taught or from the community at large.

“Eric knew as well as anybody just how senseless violence could be,” said Wiliam 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.”

Mills said Thursday that authorities still didn’t have a motive for the killing, speculating it was likely “a crime of opportunity.”

…John Chiv said that he and other St. Bernard parishioners are shocked and “angry” about Freed’s death, adding, “It’s hard to feel Christian because … it was brutal.”

Said Chiv of a man he described as “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.”

Bullock wasn’t unknown to local authorities; in fact, he’d been in custody earlier on the same day that Freed was found dead.

Police explained that, on New Year’s Eve, Humboldt County sheriff’s deputies responded to reports of a person “acting strangely” in Garberville. They went to the scene and arrested Bullock for public intoxication, taking him to a jail where “he was rejected due to his erratic behavior,” Eureka police said in a press release.

Reaction from those who knew Fr. Freed:

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.

“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.


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