SANTA ROSA, Calif. — The people of Humboldt County, located on California’s north coast, are grieving the loss of Father Eric Freed, a “wonderful” pastor, who was murdered early on New Year’s Day.
“Amid sadness, anger and disbelief, we would like to give thanks to God for tremendously blessing the parishioners of St. Bernard’s Catholic parish with Father Eric Freed. Though his life on earth was unfairly taken away, we remember that the greatest gift of all cannot be taken, which is eternal life with God,” Laura Martinez, a parishioner at Father Freed’s St. Bernard parish in Eureka, Calif., wrote on the parish’s website.
“May the Lord rest his soul. This tragedy reminds us how fragile life is and how we really do not know how much time we have left on earth. In honor of Father Eric, may we make a greater effort to live each day as if it were our last; to do our duty well, whatever it may be; and to love God and others to the fullest.”
St. Bernard parishioners became concerned when Father Freed failed to show up for 9am Mass on Jan. 1, and his corpse was found in his rectory by the parish’s deacon, who, according to Hank Sims, a local journalist, told the parishioners at St. Bernard that “something is terribly wrong with Father Freed.” The congregation then stayed to pray a Rosary until police and medical personnel arrived.
Father Freed had been the pastor at St. Bernard since 2011. The parish is located in Eureka, which is on the Pacific coast, nearly 200 miles north of Santa Rosa.
According to the Eureka Police Department, Father Freed was observed to be dead by a doctor who is a parishioner at St. Bernard once police arrived at the scene. It appears “that there was blunt-force trauma to the victim,” though the “exact cause of death has yet to be determined,” the department added.
Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills confirmed the death and announced that the police were launching an investigation at a Jan. 1 press conference. The Humboldt County coroner ruled Father Freed’s death a homicide on Jan. 2.
Mills confirmed Jan. 2 to the Local Coast Outpost, a northern California news outlet, that Gary Lee Bullock had been arrested for Father Freed’s murder. Earlier that day, Mills had announced an arrest warrant for Bullock, after a person matching his description was reported near the parish acting “suspicious.”
Hours before Father Freed’s death, Bullock had been held in the county jail and then hospital due to “strange behavior” and “erratic” actions, but he was released shortly after midnight on Jan. 1, the police department stated.
In addition to serving as pastor at St. Bernard, Father Freed was director of the Newman Center at Humboldt State University, located in nearby Arcata. There, he gave weekly lectures and catechetical classes and said Masses.
According to the university’s Newman Center Facebook page, the college students will hold a memorial once students return to campus from Christmas break. Local residents have been gathering for Mass at St. Bernard. Father Freed also taught two classes at Humboldt State: an introduction to Christianity and Japanese calligraphy.
Father Freed was active in the local Japanese community, having lived abroad there for more than 20 years, and he had helped a poet and Hiroshima survivor translate her works on the bombing of her home.
As well as living in Japan, Father Freed had also lived in Italy for a time.
Stephen Cunha, colleague and chairman of Humboldt State University’s religious studies department, described Father Freed as “a really, genuinely warm individual," in a Jan. 2 interview with CNN.
“Kind is the word that comes to mind; sensitive. He connected with everybody."
Eureka Mayor Frank Jager described Father Freed at a Jan. 1 press conference as a friend and a “tremendous person in this community.”
Jager described Father Freed as “involved with the Japanese community, multilingual,” and he called his death “an absolutely tremendous loss, not only for St. Bernard’s parish, but for our community in general.”
"Every once in a while, you meet one of those people who is truly wonderful — someone you’d like to clone and fill the world with. He was one of those people.
“[For] those of us who believe in prayer, this is the time for that.”