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.