Man on probation arrested, let go, then allegedly kills Catholic priest

Suspect arrested in priest's killing

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Story highlights

  • Murder suspect Bullock was on probation when he was arrested for public intoxication
  • He pleaded guilty to cocaine possession tied to a 2012 arrest, got three years probation
  • It wasn't the type of probation that should have kept him detained, lieutenant says
  • Authorities say Bullock killed a California priest hours after his release from jail

A California man was on probation when he was arrested then released for public intoxication, hours after which he allegedly killed a Roman Catholic priest in a church rectory.

The terms of slaying suspect Gary Lee Bullock's probation -- which were for three years tied to a November 2012 arrest for cocaine possession -- did not mandate that he should have remained behind bars after his arrest in southern Humboldt County, California, on New Year's Eve.

But had he stayed in custody, or if Eureka police officers detained him again after being tipped off about a suspicious man shortly after his release at the coastal city's St. Bernard Church, the gruesome story may have turned out differently.

Instead, around 9 a.m. on Wednesday, New Year's Day, church staff alerted police after finding the Rev. Eric Freed's body.

Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills said later that officers and a doctor, who also was a parishioner, soon determined that Freed was dead, having suffered "blunt force trauma" in what he described as a "violent struggle."

Court and other records obtained Friday by CNN did not hint at any violent crimes in Bullock's history.

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But they do shed light on some of his life, including speeding tickets, the fact he has at least three daughters, bankruptcy filings and the aforementioned cocaine arrest.

He pleaded guilty to a controlled substance charge on the latter matter, leading to the probation. CNN's efforts on Friday to reach the lawyer who represented Bullock in this case were unsuccessful.

Bullock's was a relatively low-level probation: It did not mean he should remain detained were he ever arrested on any charge, Lt. Steve Knight of the Humboldt County Sheriff's Office said.

Humboldt County's chief probation officer, William Damiano, said Bullock's case never fell under his department, and as such Bullock didn't have to do things like check in regularly with a probation officer.

The California Superior Court document outlining Bullock's probation specifies that he would be in violation if he was found to have "any nonprescribed controlled substance."

But the guidelines specifically do not include things like prohibiting the violation of any "criminal statutes;" possession, custody or control of any alcohol; or "aggressive or assaultive behavior toward any person."

These facts are relevant, given Bullock's interaction with authorities in the hours before Freed's death.

According to Eureka police, the 43-year-old was "acting strangely" when he was picked up by county sheriff's deputies in Garberville.

They took him to a jail where "he was rejected due to his erratic behavior," then moved him to a nearby hospital "where he became more agitated and had to be physically restrained by deputies," police added. Knight, from the sheriff's office, said Bullock was sent to a hospital because of a high heart rate.

He was eventually booked into a jail shortly after 4:30 p.m. that day, staying there for more than eight hours before his release at 12:43 a.m. on January 1.

Less than two hours later, police got a call about a suspicious person at St. Bernard Church. Officers found Bullock, but because he wasn't "intoxicated and did not qualify for an emergency psychological hold," they didn't detain him.

Instead, they referred him to a shelter, Mills said.

Chief: Police want to know why slaying happened

At some point later, a guard at St. Bernard found a person matching Bullock's description on the premises and told him to leave, police said.

Then came the devastating discovery of Freed's body. The slain priest's 2010 Nissan hybrid was gone.

Bullock apparently drove 45 minutes from the parish to a family member's house in that car, police said. One of Bullock's relatives eventually tipped off police to his whereabouts, leading to his arrest midday Thursday, according to the Eureka police chief.

"There's no question in our mind he's responsible for this heinous act," Mills said, citing evidence recovered at the crime scene and interviews with witnesses that allegedly link Bullock to the priest's death.

The chief added: "To me, 'why' is the biggest thing that we would like to establish -- to bring a sense of ease and comfort to the community," Mills said.

That community -- including members of St. Bernard Parish, students and staff at Humboldt State University where Freed taught, and residents throughout greater Eureka -- was still hurting Friday, as it tried to make sense of the violent death of the popular priest.

"Eric knew as well as anybody just how senseless violence could be," said William Herbrechtsmeier, a professor at Humboldt State. "When a fine person like him is brought down -- that's just tragic."

Since 2007, Freed had taught about the New Testament at that public university, where he also had a leadership role in the Newman Center for Catholic students.

He developed a reputation there for his warmth as much as his scholarly expertise, which made him popular on campus.

"Kind is the word that comes to mind, sensitive." said professor Stephen Cunha, the chairman of Humboldt State University's religious studies department. "... He was very much someone that you could sit down and speak with. ... He connected with everybody."

But his primary calling was as a priest. Freed had been part of California's Santa Rosa diocese since 1999, establishing himself as a "great preacher" and an engaging teacher from his work in Catholic schools, said Monsignor Daniel Whelton.

John Chiv said he and other St. Bernard parishioners are shocked and angered by Freed's death, especially given how it happened.

"It's hard to feel Christian because ... it was brutal," Chiv said, adding that Freed was "very jovial ... very accessible (and) very loving."

"We lost a pastor, we lost a friend and, for many of us, he was like a father figure."