A Humboldt County man was arrested Thursday afternoon in connection with the New Year's Day slaying of a popular Roman Catholic priest in the small Northern California town of Eureka, law enforcement officials said.

Gary Lee Bullock, 43, was arrested in southern Humboldt County near Garberville, about an hour from Eureka, said Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills. The priest's car, a 2010 Nissan hybrid, was recovered nearby.

Police believe that Bullock killed Father Eric Freed, a priest at St. Bernard parish, after a "violent struggle" in the church rectory early Wednesday.

Authorities have not determined a motive, Mills said, but believe that the crime was random. "We do not believe there was any connection between the victim … and the suspect," Mills told The Times. "It seems to be a crime of opportunity."

Freed, whom colleagues described as gregarious and well-spoken, had been with the parish for about five years, said Frank Weber, a deacon at St. Bernard. His death has shocked the tiny, close-knit community.

"This is a town where it seems everyone knows one another," Mills said. "It has really sent shock waves throughout the community."

Mayor Frank Jager, who considered Freed a personal friend, called the priest's death a "complete tragedy."

"It's gut-wrenching when you think about how he's not going to be there, and the way it happened," Jager said.

Freed's body was discovered by parishioners after he did not show up for a 9 a.m. Mass. Bullock had been released from the county jail two blocks away just hours earlier, Eureka police said.

Humboldt County sheriff's deputies had arrested Bullock near Garberville early Tuesday afternoon on suspicion of public intoxication. He was taken to a hospital for evaluation, then booked at the county jail about 4:30 p.m., said sheriff's Lt. Steve Knight.

He was released at 12:42 a.m. New Year's Day, Knight said.

About 2 a.m., reports of a suspicious person at the church prompted Eureka police to respond. There, they allegedly found Bullock, but Mills said he was "not intoxicated, and did not qualify for an emergency psychological hold." They referred him to an emergency shelter instead.

Later, Mills said, a security guard reported again seeing someone matching Bullock's description near the rectory and told him to leave.

Mills said that video surveillance helped police confirm Bullock as a suspect in the slaying, and that their investigation indicates that he broke into the church and a "violent struggle ensued."

Although no cause of death has been determined, Eureka police said Freed appeared to have suffered blunt-force trauma. The Humboldt County coroner's office has ruled the case a homicide, and an autopsy is scheduled for Saturday.

Freed was ordained in Japan and lived there for 20 years, and was fluent in Japanese. He was admired for his intellect and ability to discuss religion at a high level. He also taught classes in religious studies at Humboldt State University and was deeply involved with the school's Catholic student group.

In a statement Thursday, the university called his death a "tragic and difficult loss," and added that Freed had a positive effect on "hundreds of individuals" in the area.

"He cast a wide net," said Stephen Cunha, chairman of the university's Religious Studies Department.

"He was witty," Cunha said. "He was just interesting to listen to. He could take students on a journey and get them to think deeply."

Not long before his death, Freed marked the holidays, in part, by posting a letter to parishioners on the church's website.

"I cannot tell you how proud and honored I am to be your pastor," Freed wrote. "Our parish is alive, joyful and full of faith, hope and charity that define us as Catholic Christians."

christine.maiduc@latimes.com