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Priest killed in California, police unable to hold suspect

Priest killed: Humboldt County police were unable to hold a suspect in the slaying of Rev. Eric Freed, a Roman Catholic priest who was found dead in the rectory of his church on New Year's Day.

By Jeff Barnard and Tami AbdollahAssociated Press / January 4, 2014

Rev. Eric Freed administering First Communion in St. Bernard Catholic Church in Eureka, Calif. in May 2012. Freed was found slain New Year's Day in the rectory of the church. A suspect was arrested who police say was in jail the day before behaving erratically but was released after being evaluated at a hospital.

Lynn Enemark/AP

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Eureka, Calif.

When the body of the Rev. Eric Freed was discovered in the rectory of his church on New Year's Day, police immediately had a suspect: A man released from jail hours earlier who was spotted on church grounds by a security guard, questioned by a police officer, and then seen again by the same guard, this time holding a wooden stake.

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With this coastal city of 27,000 mourning over the death of the popular and charismatic Roman Catholic priest, Eureka police and the Humboldt County Sheriff's Department defended the decision to let Gary Bullock go free hours before Freed was killed.

They see cases like his every day. With no serious criminal behavior to hold him, and no evidence of a psychiatric problem, they say they had to let him go.

"This was standard practice," said sheriff's Lt. Steve Knight. "It was truly a tragic, tragic event that this happened after the fact. Unfortunately, we release people from our jail because we have to, and they go commit other crimes. There was no indication of anything unusual here."

Police Chief Andrew Mills agreed. He said after the passing security guard noticed Bullock in the shadows of church grounds, the guard called police, and an officer confronted Bullock on the street in front of the rectory. The officer examined Bullock's jail papers, did a field sobriety test, determined he was mentally competent to be in public then directed him to the rescue mission a few blocks away.

"In this, I am satisfied our officers did what they could do, given the parameters of the law," said Mills, a former San Diego police captain who took over as chief two months ago. "The question becomes could we have done other administrative things such as taken him over to the shelter. Would that have been reasonable? We'll have to wrestle with these questions."

That frustrates Lisa Russ, who worships at St. Bernard Catholic Church, where Freed was pastor.

"Our police do a good job, but something is broken in our system if we can have people arrested and released," she said Thursday night outside the Gothic church built in 1885 from redwood trees taken from the foggy coast.

"We've got people here we want to be caring and compassionate towards," she said. "But there's got to be a better way."

When it comes to holding someone in jail, authorities are constrained.

Officers considering a potential "5150" — or involuntary psychiatric hold — must determine if the person is a danger to himself or others or unable to care for himself. Because the person isn't under arrest, California law tries to balance public safety with individual rights.

Officers must have probable cause to have a person evaluated by a health professional for a 72-hour hold.

"You have to talk to them and find out what's going on," said Los Angeles police Officer Wendy Reyes. "If you find out they have priors, have a history of attempted suicide. Most of the time they'll tell you themselves."

Bullock, 43, was well-known to authorities in Humboldt County, the heart of the Northern California marijuana growing region known as the Emerald Triangle. He was on probation for misdemeanor convictions for cocaine possession and had no record of violent crime.

Bullock was arrested for investigation of disorderly conduct at 1:27 p.m. on New Year's Eve at his home town of Redway after a mobile home park resident noticed him hiding in bushes and "acting bizarre," said Knight.

Because he was on parole, Bullock was taken to jail in Eureka. On the way, Bullock tried to kick out the patrol car windows, said Knight. When he calmed down enough for the jail nurse to examine him, his heart was racing — too high to be admitted to the jail. So two deputies took him to the emergency room at St. Joseph Hospital, where doctors pronounced him fit for jail.

Police said he was held for eight hours — twice the normal time for a disorderly conduct allegation — before being released 42 minutes after midnight. He was not given a psychiatric exam.

About 2 a.m., a security guard passing the church noticed a light on in the bathroom of the church fellowship hall, and Bullock standing outside. The guard told Bullock to leave and called police. Later, an officer found Bullock in front of the rectory and let him go, authorities said.

About 3:30 a.m., the security guard spotted Bullock outside the church hall again, this time holding a wooden stake, police said. The guard told him to be on his way but did not call police. Mills said investigators think Bullock had not gone into the rectory at this point, and Freed was still alive. An autopsy has yet to determine time of death.

When Freed did not show up for morning Mass, someone went looking for him in the rectory. He was found dead, apparently beaten. Police said there were signs of forced entry and a wooden stake was found.

"It is a weapon that could have been used in the crime," Mills said.

Surveillance video from the rectory also shows Bullock outside, Mills said.

When a warrant was issued for Bullock's arrest, deputies knew where to find him. When deputies drove up the six miles of dirt road to the home of Bullock's mother, they said they came across Bullock riding in his stepfather's pickup truck, on his way to turn himself in. He surrendered quietly and was being held on $1 million bail.

He is expected to be arraigned Monday on a murder charge. Authorities did not know whether he had a lawyer.

Tami Abdollah reported from Los Angeles.

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