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The night before he was bludgeoned to death, the Rev. Eric Freed told his congregation at St. Bernard Catholic Church that he soon would be leaving town for a couple days.

"I'm going to go away to a secret place. But don't worry, I'll be back," Freed said, according to parishioner David Silverbrand.

The choir and pianist who normally play the recessional hymn were off that night -#8212; New Year's Eve -#8212; so Freed did something unusual as he exited: He walked out singing a hymn in Japanese, a language he learned while living in Japan.

"It was the strangest and most beautiful thing I've ever seen," Silverbrand said. "That was the last time I saw him until the funeral."

Just hours before Freed said goodbye to his congregation, the man now accused of killing him was creating a very different sort of scene in the small town of Redway, about an hour south of Eureka.

Gary Lee Bullock, 44, a longtime resident of the town, was hiding in bushes and yelling in a deranged manner, callers told sheriff's deputies. A couple who live across the street from where Bullock was staying said he pushed his way into their home, threatening them and claiming to be looking for his wife. He searched the small residence, including inside the microwave.

By early the next morning, the trajectories of the two men had intersected violently, police say. Freed, a man admired for his humor, intellectual curiosity and involvement in the community, was found dead in the church rectory at around 9a.m.

Soon after, Bullock was named as the primary suspect, and he was arrested within hours.

The slaying of a beloved priest in his home has shocked people along the North Coast, including in Sonoma County where Freed spent time as a priest. St. Joseph Church in Cotati, where Freed worked and many still remember him, will hold a memorial Mass for him at 11 a.m., Feb. 1.

But for Eureka, a close-knit coastal town of about 27,000 people, the shock isn't just that Freed was a priest -#8212; it is that a vital member of the community has been lost. Many people are asking what, if anything, could have been done to prevent Freed's death, particularly since Bullock came in contact with law enforcement twice in the day leading up to the killing.

People in the community also are grappling with how to move on when the man who they always turned to for guidance in their grief is himself gone.

On Wednesday, a week after Freed's body was discovered, his death hung heavy on Eureka, the Humboldt County seat. A light drizzle fell, and the steps of St. Bernard's rectory were lined with bouquets of roses and tulips, candles and handwritten notes to Freed.

Not far away, a marquee at the Arkley Center for the Performing Arts read: "Father Eric you were loved and will be so missed."

Betty Chinn, an advocate for the homeless who described Freed as "my religious teacher, my supporter, my good friend," could not hold back her tears.

Chinn is Catholic but says she is so busy cooking meals for the homeless and running a new center co-sponsored by Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Santa Rosa that she rarely has time to go to church.

"Father told me, 'Your church is where you do your work,'" she said. "He always prayed for me, worried about my safety working with people" on the streets.

Eureka Mayor Frank Jager got to know Freed while leading Boy Scout meetings at St. Bernard. "He was more than just the pastor of a Catholic church," he said.

Freed, 56, taught religious studies at nearby Humboldt State University, was active with the Japanese Catholic community in the Bay Area and became involved with religious leaders of various faiths.

Jager said Freed's death was "clearly one of the worst events we've had" in the more than 10 years he has served as mayor and councilman.

"There are a few people I've met in my life who were just outstanding -#8212; ones you want to clone and populate the world with," Jager said. "(Freed) was one of those."

The shock has also reached Redway, a forested town of 1,200 people. Bullock grew up in the area, and his mother is a prominent member of the community, said Kym Kemp, who writes for a news website covering the area.

While people in Redway said they were surprised to hear about the charges against Bullock, he was no stranger to sheriff's deputies. Lt. Steve Knight said Bullock has been a suspect over the years in minor offenses and has reported himself as the victim of crimes. However, he never has been charged with a violent crime, and there's nothing in his history to indicate mental illness, Knight said.

Most recently, Bullock was arrested in April and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of cocaine possession. He was on summary probation, a less restrictive form of probation, through 2016.

At 1:27 p.m. on Dec. 31, sheriff's deputies responded to a call about a man, who turned out to be Bullock, who was acting strangely and refusing to leave an area of bushes near a mobile home park in Redway.

But the bizarre behavior had started hours earlier, said Molly Parker, who lives across from a motel owned by Bullock's brother that she says Bullock has been staying in.

Parker said Bullock knocked on her door at about 10a.m. on Dec.31. When she opened the door, he shoved a mop handle into her stomach and demanded to see his wife, whom he believed Parker was hiding in her home, she said. He looked for her in the microwave and in a pair of Parker's boots, she said.

Parker called the man she lives with for help, and the two men fought, she said. At one point, she said, Bullock pointed to her and said, "You're an angel." Then he pointed to her partner and said, "He's going to hell." Then he told the man to repent.

"We didn't know him that well, but we never saw him do anything like that before," she said, adding that they did not call the police.

When deputies arrived in Redway, Bullock admitted to having taken methamphetamine and heroin, Knight said. A deputy arrested him on suspicion of being under the influence and disorderly conduct and took him to the county jail in Eureka.

Bullock arrived with his heart racing so rapidly that a jail medic determined he should be taken to the emergency room, Knight said. Doctors at St. Joseph Hospital released him to back to the jail and Bullock spent the next eight hours there, until officials determined he was sober and could be released. That was at 12:42 a.m. Jan. 1.

St. Bernard, in the heart of downtown Eureka, is just blocks from the jail. It's also near a bail bond business and the county probation office, and it's not uncommon for homeless people to sleep on the rectory steps, parishioners said.

Bullock found his way to the church: Someone reported to police that a man was screaming nearby at about 2 a.m. A Eureka police officer responding to the call interviewed Bullock and found him sober and rational, Police Chief Andrew Mills said, adding that the officer could find no reason to detain him.

Video from the church's extensive surveillance system shows a man matching Bullock's appearance trying the doors to the rectory, then breaking out a window and crawling in carrying a metal pipe and wooden stake that appeared to have been pulled from the church garden, according to Mills and an affidavit written in support of a warrant for Bullock's arrest.

Less than six hours later, a priest found Freed's body in the rectory after he failed to show up for morning Mass. He had been beaten, and the weapons appeared to be the pipe and stake, the affidavit says. The coroner was unable to determine a time of death and is awaiting autopsy results, said Deputy District Attorney Elan Firpo.

The affidavit states that Bullock then attempted to blow up the rectory. First, he wrapped the priest in blankets doused with 80 proof alcohol and tried to light the bedding on fire. When that failed, he lighted a cigar and left it next to a gas stove with opened burner valves, according to the affidavit.

Bullock drove the priest's Nissan Altima to the home of his mother and stepfather in Briceland, near Redway, leaving it hidden nearby, Knight said. He was arrested at around 12:45 p.m. when sheriff's deputies met Bullock, who was unknowingly being driven toward authorities by his stepfather, Knight said.

The Humboldt County District Attorney has charged Bullock with murder, with a special allegation of torture and another of residential burglary, as well as vehicle theft and attempted arson. Such special circumstances eventually could allow prosecutors to seek the death penalty.

Firpo said no motive was yet apparent in the slaying. "It causes you to question your faith, when such an uncommonly good person is murdered," she said.

Many community members, including Jager, the mayor, have asked how Bullock could have passed through law enforcement's hands twice in the hours before the killing.

"There's certainly going to be a discussion between myself and sheriff's officials," said Jager, who worked with the Eureka Police Department for 20 years before going on to work for the District Attorney's Office and as Humboldt County Coroner. "I know the sheriff was following his protocol, but to bring him here, hold him, and kick him out on the street -#8212; there's something wrong here."

Silverbrand, the St. Bernard parishioner who is a TV personality in Eureka, said, "All this touched a nerve in so many ways you can't believe it."

He and law enforcement officials say that Eureka, despite its small size, is grappling with growing crime problems driven in part by drug abuse. "It felt like, 'There we go again with the criminal element doing what they want to do,'" he said. "This time, it hit us right in the wheelhouse."

Sheriff's Lt. Knight and Police Chief Mills contend that their departments did everything they could within the law.

"It would have been a violation of his civil rights" to hold him longer, said Knight, who added that Bullock was exhibiting signs of intoxication, not mental illness, and that they kept him in jail for eight hours, twice the standard for such cases. There was no legal reason to hold Bullock after he was sober, he said.

"If we held someone no longer showing signs of intoxication, we could probably be sued for (violating) civil rights," Knight said.

Mills, the police chief, said he has reviewed hours of church surveillance video to "ensure we did everything in our power." He said his officer went through an extensive evaluation with Bullock to make sure that he wasn't intoxicated or unable to care for himself.

"We put a lot of people in jail," he said. "But with that comes a laser focus on constitutional rights. That's something I'm willing to stick my flag on the hill and die for."

"He went through a checklist, looking for any reason to detain him, but found him calm, lucid, and respectful," Mills said. "The officer chose to direct him off the property and direct him to (a nearby homeless shelter.)"

Last Wednesday, parishioners glanced at the flowers and candles outside the rectory as they made their way into the church for Mass. Among them was John Chiv, who said daily Mass has drawn twice its normal attendance since Freed's death.

Bishop Robert Vasa arrived in Eureka immediately after Freed's death and stayed several days to help see the community through its sorrow, said Monsignor Dan Whelton, vicar general for the diocese.

Vasa has appointed the Rev. Loren Allen, who has been working at churches in Bodega and Occidental and was a popular priest at St. Bernard before Freed's arrival, as a temporary replacement.

"My primary role is to help all of us deal with our grief and loss," Allen said. "It's like a death in the family."

However, he said, he also saw his goal as helping the congregation not to dwell on the sadness.

"We're called on as Christians to look to tomorrow, and we can't lose sight of the fact that time goes on, and we have work to do."

You can reach Staff Writer

Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter at @JamieHansen.