The priest killed on New Year’s Day in Eureka, Calif., is described as a priest who “connected with everybody,” but the news of a beloved priest killed and the news that the suspected killer was in police custody just hours before the crime makes one wonder, did the police miss some important connection? “Police had a man who is suspected of killing a Catholic priest in his California rectory, but they let him go,” reported CNN on Jan. 3, 2014.
While parishioners are mourning the killed priest – Father Eric Freed from the St. Bernard Catholic Church in Eureka – many others are wondering if the loss of a beloved community member could have been prevented.
According to the Eureka Police Department, the suspect in the killing of the priest, 43-year-old Gary Lee Bullock, was released from jail around 12:30 a.m. on Jan. 1, 2014, after having been arrested for public intoxication.
“On New Year's Eve, Humboldt County sheriff's deputies had responded to reports that a person was ‘acting strangely’ and arrested Bullock, taking him to jail. But Bullock, police said, was ‘rejected’ from the facility ‘due to his erratic behavior.’ … Bullock, 43, was then moved to a nearby hospital, ‘where he became more agitated and had to be physically restrained by deputies,’ police said. Bullock was eventually booked into a jail shortly after 4:30 p.m. on New Year's Eve, staying there for more than eight hours. He was released at 12:43 a.m. on January 1."
Within less than two hours after his release from jail, Gary Lee Bullock again had an encounter with the police at St. Bernard Church in Eureka, which is about 275 miles north of San Francisco. This time, Bullock wasn’t "intoxicated and did not qualify for an emergency psychological hold," said Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills.
Instead of jail, Bullock was referred to a shelter.
At 9 a.m. on New Year’s Day, police were called a second time to St. Bernard Church because Father Eric Freed was found dead in the rectory by church staff after he had not appeared for morning mass. According to Chief Andrew Mills, there were signs of forced entry and a violent struggle at the rectory. Father Eric Freed had suffered “blunt force trauma."
After the killing of the beloved priest, an arrest warrant was issued for Bullock who had fled in Father Freed’s 2010 Nissan hybrid to a family member’s house about 45 minutes away from the parish. One of Bullock’s relatives informed the police.
In regard to the killed priest and the suspect, Chief Andrew Mills commented on Thursday that “evidence recovered at the crime scene and interviews with eyewitnesses” allegedly linked Bullock to the priest's death. As for a motive, “the police chief speculated it was probably ‘a crime of opportunity’."