EUREKA, Calif. — The Eureka Police Department was investigating as murder the death of Father Eric Freed, the pastor of St. Bernard Catholic Church, who was found badly beaten in his rectory Jan. 1 after he failed to make it to New Year’s Mass.
Eureka police confirmed at midday Jan. 2 that they had arrested Gary Lee Bullock of Redway, Calif., in connection with the death of Father Freed, pastor since 2011 of St. Bernard and its mission church, St. Joseph.
An earlier police statement said the priest, 56, was found badly injured in the parish rectory at about 9 a.m. Jan. 1. Police and a doctor arrived soon after and declared he was dead. The statement said cause of death had not been determined, pending an autopsy scheduled for Jan. 4.
“It does appear that there was blunt force trauma to the victim,” the statement said.
Father Freed, who lived in Japan for more than 20 years as a Salesian missionary, also taught in the religious studies department at Humboldt State University, where he previously served as director of the campus Newman Center.
His immersion in Japanese culture and his interest in social justice led him to write a story of a survivor of the nuclear bomb attack on Hiroshima as an introduction for a book of haiku by Hiroko Takanashi, “The Experience of the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima in Poem,” reported the Eureka daily newspaper.
Msgr. Dan Whelton, vicar general of the Santa Rosa Diocese, told Catholic News Service that Father Freed was a very popular preacher, a friendly man who was “an easy person to be with” who had “a smile, a good word for everybody.”
Father Freed was a native of Ann Arbor, Mich., who grew up in Covina in Southern California. He joined the Salesian religious order and attended college and some of his seminary training in Japan, before continuing theology studies in Turin, Italy.
He was ordained for the Salesians, Sept. 23, 1990, in Tokyo, and worked in Japan until returning to California in the late 1990s, said Msgr. Whelton. Upon his return he moved to the Santa Rosa Diocese and was eventually incardinated as a priest of the diocese.
Msgr. Whelton said that in a diocese with only about 55 diocesan priests, Father Freed was well-known and well-liked by his fellow priests. He said the parishioners of St. Bernard “speak very fondly of him.”
A fellow priest of the diocese, Father Ron Serban of St. Mary’s Church in Arcata, where Humboldt State is located, wrote to the local newspaper that Father Freed was a good friend in whom he could trust and confide and with whom he could debate Scripture interpretation, laugh and cry.
“He was a brother. We enjoyed our Notre Dame vs. USC rivalry (he the Trojans, me the Irish). We both liked Stanford though, and I was looking forward to ‘football banter’ texting for their last game this past Wednesday. That did not happen,” Father Serban wrote. “Many things we enjoyed with or about Father Eric will not happen again. Let us be thankful for the times they did happen and hold those memories dear.”
An overnight vigil at St. Bernard’s was set for Jan. 5 into Jan. 6, with a funeral Mass and burial Jan. 6. Santa Rosa Bishop Robert F. Vasa was scheduled to preside at the weekday regular Masses Jan. 3.
The Eureka newspaper, the Times-Dispatch, reported that Deacon Frank Weber found the priest’s body amid signs of a struggle.
The police statement said Bullock had been arrested for public intoxication Dec. 31, transferred briefly to a hospital for evaluation and ultimately booked into the Humboldt County Jail for about 12 hours before being released shortly after midnight Jan. 1.
Bullock was spotted several hours later in Eureka and transferred to an emergency shelter, said the press release.
The police statement said a man fitting Bullock’s description was seen by a security guard that night around the church and was asked to leave the property. Police said the rectory showed signs of forced entry and a violent struggle.