While some folks in the upstate California town of Eureka slept off the excesses of New Year’s Eve, the more devout parishioners of St. Bernard’s Roman Catholic Church waited in the pews to start 2014 with the 9 a.m. Mass.
The waiting turned to wondering when the pastor, Father Eric Freed, did not appear. The deacon, Frank Weber, finally went in search of him.
Weber returned and said that something had happened to the pastor. The parishioners began saying the Rosary as a call went in to 911. An operator dispatched a radio car to the church.
“For a 50-year-old male, assault, unconscious,” the dispatcher said. “At the rectory.”
Moments later, police arrived. They followed Weber into the rectory to find Freed sprawled and unresponsive, amid signs of a forced entry and a violent struggle. A parishioner who is a doctor then informed the police that Freed was beyond medical help.
“This a confirmed 1144, cancel city ambulance,” the officer radioed the dispatcher.
An 1144 is somebody who is dead at the scene.
“Confirmed 1144,” the dispatcher replied. “Canceling city ambulance service.”
The officer asked that the investigation team be notified.
“We’ll be in the church directing the congregation to move toward the exits,” the officer said.
“I received ‘the congregation,’ repeat the rest,” the dispatcher asked.
“We’ll be having them exit,” the officer said.
The faithful were still saying the Rosary when the officers informed them that they had to leave. They filed out beneath the stained-glass windows depicting the patron saint of beekeepers and candle makers. Yellow crime-scene tape went up around the 125-year-old redwood structure.
But of course the praying continued. Mayor Frank Jager of Eureka made that clear when he spoke at a press conference outside the church.
Eureka’s police chief, Andy Mills, spoke first and said it was too early in the investigation to identify the victim. Mills then turned it over to Jager, who tried to respect the chief’s reticence, but then felt compelled to say more.
“Everybody knows it’s Father Eric,” Jager said. “Father Eric is a friend of mine, a tremendous person in this community.”
Jager went on to say that Freed had come to them about three years ago and was multilingual and had been very active in the Japanese community. But Jager’s larger message was in the way he began to choke up with grief over this loss. There has been so much in the news in recent years of bad priests that we are liable to forget the remarkable power of a good one such a Freed.
“Just a tremendous person,” Jager said. “This is absolutely a tremendous loss, not only for the St. Bernard Parish, but for our community in general.”
The mayor then spoke truth to truth.
“I’ll just say this, for those of us who believe in prayer, this is a time for that and hope we can find out who did this,” he said.
Authorities were already close to identifying a suspect. They traced back a chain of events that had begun on the afternoon of Dec. 31, when the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office got a call of a 43-year-old man who was “acting strangely” in the nearby town of Garberville.
The deputies who responded arrested Gary Lee Bullock for public intoxication. But when they took him to the Humboldt County Correctional Facility at 615 H Street in Eureka, the jailers deemed him too “erratic” to be accepted there. The facility’s record notes that he was returned to the cops just after 3:30 p.m. on the final day of the year:
“BULLOCK, GARY LEE…12/31/2013 15:31… RELEASED TO LAW ENFORCEMENT.”
The only thing for the deputies to do was to take Bullock to a hospital for evaluation.
“Where he became more agitated and had to be physically restrained by deputies,” the police would later report.
But the doctors deemed Bullock not disturbed enough to be hospitalized. The deputies took him back to the jail and he was finally booked at 4:34 p.m.
The public-intoxication charge was minor enough that he was eligible to be released on his own recognizance as soon as he was processed, though he might have been briefly detained until he was deemed to be adequately sober. The records note that he was freed 42 minutes into the New Year.
“BULLOCK, GARY LEE…MISDEMEANOR…
01/01/2014 00:42 2 RELEASED TO SELF”
At 2 a.m., Eureka police responded to a report of a suspicious person outside St. Bernard’s Church, just three blocks from the jail.
“Officers contacted Bullock and found Bullock was not intoxicated and did not qualify for an emergency psychological hold,” the Eureka police later reported. “Officers referred Bullock to an emergency shelter for the night.”
Later, a security guard heard noises in the vicinity of the church and came upon someone who matches Bullock’s description. The guard instructed the person to leave.
The police say they believe that around this time “forced entry was made into the parsonage and a violent struggle ensued.” Freed’s car was found to be missing afterward.
On Thursday, police announced they had obtained an arrest warrant for Bullock. He surrendered to sheriff’s deputies through family members in the afternoon. A dispatcher relayed instructions from a Eureka detective to the arresting deputies.
“Paper bags over the hands and tape at the wrists,” the dispatcher said. “He wants the hands preserved.”
Now facing a murder charge, Bullock was returned to the jail three blocks from the church where Freed had shown how much good a priest can do.
“I cannot tell you how proud and honored I am to be your pastor,” he had written in his Christmas letter to his parishioners this year. “Our parish is alive, joyful, and full of faith, hope, and charity.”
A photo of him went up on the parish website on Thursday and beneath it were these words:
“Pastor… Shepherd... Friend.”
Then it said simply,
“Rest in Peace.”