EUREKA, Calif. — Standing in the darkness outside St. Bernard Catholic Church, Lisa Russ struggled with the idea that her priest may have been killed by a man released from jail despite exhibiting behavior erratic enough for him to be sent to a hospital for evaluation.
“Our police do a good job, but something is broken in our system if we can have people arrested and released,” she said Thursday night standing outside the Gothic church built in 1885.
Russ had organized parishioners and their children to cover the church steps with the light of votive candles inside paper bags painted with messages of love, peace and faith.
“We’ve got people here we want to be caring and compassionate towards. But there’s got to be a better way.”
Gary Lee Bullock, 43, of Redway, was taken into custody in the Garberville area by Humboldt County deputies earlier Thursday in the killing of the Rev. Eric Freed, according to a statement by Eureka police. Freed’s car was also discovered.
Police said Bullock was initially arrested Tuesday for public intoxication in Garberville and taken 67 miles north to jail in Eureka.
His erratic behavior led police to send him to a hospital for an evaluation. He became agitated and deputies had to restrain him. He was booked into jail for about eight hours then released shortly after midnight.
At 2 a.m. Wednesday, Eureka police responded to a call about a suspicious person a couple blocks from the jail and about 5 yards from the site where Freed was found. Police said Bullock wasn’t intoxicated then and didn’t qualify for an emergency psychological hold.
Officers referred him to an emergency shelter for the night.
Later, a security guard heard noise near the church and went to investigate. He saw a man matching Bullock’s description and after a short conversation told him to leave the property, police said.
Police did not immediately respond to a call late Thursday seeking more detail on Bullock’s release.
Freed’s body was found New Year’s Day in the rectory at St. Bernard Church after he failed to show up for morning Mass.
It is not clear exactly when or how Freed was killed. Police said his body showed signs of blunt force trauma. Investigators also found indications of forced entry and a struggle.
Under California law, people who are considered a danger to themselves or others can be held involuntarily for mental health treatment for up to 72 hours, said Nicholas Pacilio, a spokesman for the state attorney general.
Law enforcement officials must have probable cause to believe someone meets the criteria before taking them to a hospital or mental health facility for an evaluation. A mental health professional then decides if the person warrants a mental health hold.
If someone is held longer than 72 hours, they are entitled to a lawyer and a hearing before a judge.
Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills told the Times-Standard newspaper that Bullock did not have a violent criminal record. The newspaper reported court records in Humboldt County showed Bullock was arrested for cocaine possession and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors in April 2013.
Efforts to reach the jail for information on an attorney for Bullock were not successful.
Freed had taught classes on religion at Humboldt State University since 2007, including “Introduction to Christianity” and a class on Japanese calligraphy. Humboldt State is a small university of 8,000 students in nearby Arcata, located on the edge of the Pacific Ocean near Redwood National Park. Humboldt Countyis known for dairy farming, commercial fishing, a declining logging industry and marijuana and methamphetamine production.
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.
Freed grew up in Southern California and graduated from Loyola Marymount University. He completed his graduate studies in linguistics while in Italy, where he also learned how to speak Italian.
Freed also worked on a book related to the bombing of Hiroshima, helping a survivor translate haikus about the experience and providing commentary. When the book was published a few years ago, Humboldt State held a conference on genocide and violence.
He often celebrated Mass in Japanese and other languages, parishioner Paul Shanahan said.
John Gierek said he was angry at the death of his pastor, but wanted to think about the life he led, rather than the circumstances of his death.
“I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that he brought the light of Christ to so many people,” he said. “The anger is just part of the grieving process.”