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Priest murder suspect allegedly tried to burn body, blow up rectory

A man suspected of the New Year’s Day killing of a well-loved Northern California priest also allegedly attempted to light the body on fire and blow up the rectory at St. Bernard Parish in Eureka, court records reveal.

Gary Lee Bullock, 44, allegedly rolled Father Eric Freed’s body into blankets and doused him with “several bottles” of 80-proof alcohol. He then attempted to light Freed’s body on fire, according to an affidavit filed with the Humboldt County Superior Court. The fire extinguished itself.

Authorities also allege in the documents that Bullock lit a cigar, placing it on a gas stove before lighting the burners in an attempt to blow up the rectory, but the cigar also burned out.

The grisly details shed little light on any motive Bullock might have had in the slaying of the popular cleric, whose death sent shock waves through the tiny community where he taught classes on religion and often advocated on behalf of the homeless.

According to the affidavit, Paul Weber, the deacon of St. Bernard, discovered Freed’s body Jan. 1 after Freed failed to show for a morning Mass.

Freed appeared to have been beaten so severely, the record said, that his legs were badly bruised and his nose appeared misshapen. A wooden stick and a rusty metal pipe were found nearby, and are believed to be the alleged weapons.

The Humboldt County coroner said Freed died of blunt force trauma and had sustained injuries to a “substantial part of his body.”

Bullock was arrested a day after the attack, after reports revealed he had been seen in the vicinity early New Year’s Day, just hours after being released from the nearby county jail.

The affidavit obtained by The Times said county jail staff and sheriff’s deputies told prosecutors Bullock was “not in a normal mental state” when arrested on suspicion of public intoxication in southern Humboldt County on New Year’s Eve.

He was so agitated, the county jail initially rejected him, and deputies had to “violently restrain him” at the hospital before he was released.

Bullock was finally booked into county jail about 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, and was released after midnight Jan. 1.

But he ran into authorities again that night, when Eureka police saw him near the church rectory. They instructed him to move on and referred him to an emergency shelter, but he was not intoxicated and did not qualify for an emergency psychological hold, Eureka police have said.

A couple hours later, a security guard reportedly saw someone matching Bullock’s description near the church and instructed him to leave.

The affidavit claims surveillance footage at the church shows Bullock, armed with the same pipe and stick, trying the doors to the rectory, then breaking a window before crawling in.

Bullock pleaded not guilty this week to charges of first-degree murder, auto theft and attempted arson. He was being held in lieu of $1.2-million bail.


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