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Special Report
January 16, 2014
Father Eric Freed was a beloved pastor in a small Northern California town. Why he was brutally murdered on New Year’s Day remains a mystery as a suspect is charged with the crime.
(Left) An investigator talks with a woman outside St. Bernard Church in Eureka, Calif., Jan. 1, where Father Eric Freed (right) was found dead in the rectory. (CNS photos)

 

Editors' note: The original posting of this article incorrently identified Fr. Loren Allen as "Fr. Warren Allen". The piece also stated that the suspect, Gary Bullock, was arrested a few hours after the murder. He was arrested the following day around 12:30 pm. 

For Father Eric Freed, pastor of St. Bernard Church in Eureka, California, being “late” for Mass meant getting into the sacristy ten minutes before 9 am. Then again, the commute from his front door to the church was all of eight steps. So when, on New Year’s Day, 8:50 am turned into 9 am, and that turned into 9:05am, and Father still had not arrived, Deacon Frank Weber went to the rectory to find his friend.

Nothing could have prepared him for what came next.

After calling from the downstairs hallway and not receiving an answer, Weber “went up to [Freed’s] room, that’s when I discovered him,” he recalls.

It was not immediately evident the blood-surrounded body’s was Father’s, however, for it was wrapped in a blanket that reeked of alcohol.

Weber immediately dialed 911 and then, he told CWR, went back to the church “to tell everyone Mass is cancelled and that something tragic has happened.” The congregants “immediately began saying the Rosary.”

Shortly thereafter, police and medical response teams arrived. They confirmed the badly beaten body was Father Freed’s. The question was: who would have done such a thing to a universally loved priest?

Authorities had their prime suspect in custody the next day: Gary Lee Bullock, a man whose small rap sheet included exclusively drug-related offenses, including a bust earlier in the year for cocaine possession.

It was the police’s initial dealings with the accused that turned the murder in a city of 28,000 people into an international story. For just two hours prior to Father Freed’s murder, his alleged killer had been in police custody. Many asked why he was ever released.

Bullock’s journey to jail began December 31. Just before 9 am, local law enforcement began getting phone calls about an unknown male ranting that his wife was being held against her will in Garberville. Similar calls came throughout the morning. Law enforcement could never locate Bullock, though.

Then shortly before 1:30 pm, Trudy Mae Allen, a resident of the West Coast Trailer Park in Redway, a few miles from Garberville, saw him in some bushes. She says she immediately dialed 911 because “I could tell [Bullock] was really troubled. He was telling the neighbor’s dog to attack and kill and doing bird calls…. He was pretty wild, gyrating around. He was messing with the sides of his head.”

He was also said to have dropped into the fetal position and then claimed he was looking for his wife—inside the microwave oven of a neighbor’s house into which he had stormed.

Now that police could find Bullock, they placed him under arrest at 1:47 pm. He possessed “pills,” presumably narcotics. The Local Coast Outpost reported the suspect told the arresting officer he had used both meth and heroin.

While he went into custody peaceably, on the way to the jail in Eureka, Bullock grew agitated, with numerous reports saying he tried to kick out the patrol car windows. He grew so difficult, deputies had to “violently restrain him.” His heart rate was greatly elevated.

This prompted authorities to take him in for a medical evaluation. Records show medical officials declined to look at him, and he was remanded to police custody at 3:31 pm. At 12:42 am, authorities released Bullock onto Eureka’s streets.

Lost Coast Outpost editor Hank Sims told CWR that during the press conference held just prior to Bullock’s arrest for Father Freed’s murder, Humboldt County Sheriff Mike Downey stated that at the hospital, Bullock was not given a psychiatric evaluation at any point. “I’m not sure whether he meant it was not a rigorous evaluation or if it was that he didn’t get any evaluation at all,” Sims said.

In an interview with a local radio station, Downey stated, “[Bullock] was released because we had no legal authority to continue to keep him in custody…. We can hold them longer if we feel they are a danger to themselves, not able to care for themselves…. He met the criteria to be legally released.”

After his release, it seems Bullock made his way to the St. Bernard’s rectory. According to Sims, “the church is a block and a half from the jail. If you’re walking in one direction, it’s basically the first residence you come across.”

Around 2 am, a security guard reported the presence of an unknown man lurking on church property. A police officer dispatched to the scene instructed Bullock to leave and told him where he could find shelter on the cold night.

It was around this time that security video footage shows the alleged murderer trying to break into the rectory. After breaking a small window, the intruder climbed into the house wielding a stick of some size and a white, rusted drain pipe. It is believed that these were the implements used to beat Father Freed to death.

The affidavit issued in support of the arrest warrant against Bullock claims that once the priest was dead, Bullock wrapped the body in a blanket, which he doused with several bottles’ worth of 80-proof liquor and attempted to set on fire. Liquor usually requires a higher proof to ignite, so when that didn’t work, Bullock allegedly lit a cigar, turned on the gas stove, and left the cigar on the stove, apparently hoping it would cause an explosion. The cigar extinguished on its own, however, before that could happen.

Video surveillance footage showed Bullock leaving the grounds of the church in Father Freed’s dark grey Nissan Altima. The suspect was quickly located at the home of his parents, who were preparing to turn him in.

Police questioned Bullock for several hours. While not denying he committed the crime, he did not admit it either. Police chief Andrew Mills told CWR, “He’s being evasive. A lot of, ‘I don’t remember,’ and that sort of thing.”

Because of the suspect’s total lack of cooperation, establishing a motive for the crime has proven impossible, at least as far as law enforcement officials are letting on. In his conversation with CWR, Mills as much as speculated that it was a robbery gone bad and that instead of taking responsibility for the crime, Bullock attempted to cover it up.

After discovering Father Freed’s body, Deacon Weber made notified the authorities. Next he made sure officials informed the local ordinary, Bishop Robert Vasa of the Diocese of Santa Rosa.

“My concern was, ‘I don’t want him to read about this in the newspaper or hear about it on television,’” said Weber in an interview with CWR.

Bishop Vasa said he was at home when word reached him that something had happened at St. Bernard’s. He immediately set out for Eureka, four hours away, which Deacon Weber said, “was very wonderful.”

All Bishop Vasa knew was that some tragedy had occurred at the church. Even upon his arrival, authorities would not release to him the name of the victim. However, when he asked if it was Father Freed, “They told me that would be a fair assumption,” he told CWR.

Vasa spent the following four days in Eureka, saying Masses at a number of nearby parishes. Then he said the funeral Mass for Father Freed on Monday, January 6. When he wasn’t saying Masses and hearing confessions, Vasa says he focused his “energies on trying to stay in contact with the police, and they kept me informed as much as possible.” After that, he took responsibility for helping to “put together details for what we knew would be an impending funeral, [making sure] all the things families do on death of a family member” got done. Accordingly he met with the deanery’s priests and parish council members and assigned each tasks so the funeral and following reception went smoothly.

Bullock has been charged with murder with a special allegation of torture and arson. He has pled not guilty to all charges.

Of course, much of the focus in the days after the murder wasn’t so much the crime itself or even the alleged killer but the loss of this priest.

By all accounts, Father Freed was a remarkable man. A native of Los Angeles, he originally had no interest in the priesthood. According to Weber, “When he was a kid, the last thing he ever wanted to be was be a priest because priests were old guys who never would do much. Then he met some Salesian priests who could play basketball well.”

Their style attracted him, and after graduation from Los Angeles’ Loyola Marymount University, he entered the order founded by St. John Bosco, and studied in Rome, where he learned to speak Italian fluently. The Salesians sent him to Japan, where he taught high school and fell in love with all things Japanese. His ardor for the country, its culture, and its language was so profound that Weber reports Freed’s homily notes were written in Japanese.

After two decades, however, it appears he wanted to return home and live the life of a diocesan priest. He first served in Arcata, California, a small university town at the diocese’s far northern end. It was the first time in his life Freed had ever lived in a town with fewer than four million residents, Weber said. From 2003 to 2006, Freed taught high school and served as chaplain at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, near San Jose. During this time, he also served as the chaplain for Stanford University’s football team.

Additionally, he said Masses for the Japanese communities in San Jose and San Francisco, a tradition he continued each month through the end of his life. Eventually, Father Freed found himself longing for the quiet, slower pace he had discovered in Arcata. Thus he asked then-Bishop Daniel Walsh if he could reassign him to the Diocese of Santa Rosa. At first, Walsh stationed him at a high school in the diocese’s southern end before transferring him back to Arcata, where he served the Newman Center at Humboldt State University. He also taught classes for the religion department.

Ultimately, Walsh sent Father Freed to the small St. Bernard Church in Eureka to serve as vicar. When pastor Father Loren Allen left for another parish in 2011, Freed succeeded him.

Father Freed had a dynamic preaching style, with his sermons resembling mini-Bible studies, parishioners said. Nurses at St. Joseph Hospital loved him because he would always drop everything for a sick call. Each year, he printed bookmarks for his small congregation. Each was embossed with the theme for the year. Those he would have distributed on the Feast of the Epiphany this year read, “To be happy, be thankful. To be thankful, have faith. Faith is understanding that all is God’s.”

When asked what he thought Father Freed would say in the tragedy’s aftermath, Weber said, “I guess even in the depths of this, Father Eric would want us to be thankful for our faith, to fortify that faith and to understand that even this tragedy can be reconciled by God, even something as graphically evil as this is not beyond the power of God to bring goodness from it.” 

 
About the Author
Brian O'Neel 

Brian O’Neel writes from Wisconsin.
 

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