Popular California Priest Murdered in Church Rectory

01/02/2014 at 06:00 PM EST

Popular California Priest Murdered in Church Rectory
Rev. Eric Freed
CNN
A Catholic priest found murdered in his church's rectory on New Year's Day was allegedly attacked by a man who had been jailed and released just hours earlier.

Gary Lee Bullock, 43, of Redway, Calif., was being held Thursday in the homicide of the Rev. Eric Freed, 56, of St. Bernard Church in Eureka, a northern California coastal community of 29,000 people.

Mayor Frank Jager described Freed as a personal friend and a "tremendous person in this community" since his arrival three years ago. Freed also had taught at Humboldt University's religious studies department for more than 10 years. Freed taught about the New Testament and had authored a book about the first atomic bomb.

"It's very tragic," Humboldt County Sheriff's Office's Lt. Steve Knight tells PEOPLE. "Eureka is a small community people know each other, and many of our officers and the mayor attend that church."

Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills said investigators are unsure of the motive "but don't believe it was a robbery." Freed died after a violent attack. The Humboldt county coroner says the death has been ruled a homicide and an autopsy was set for Saturday.

The priest was found dead just hours after Bullock had been released from a jail a few blocks away from the rectory.

Humboldt County sheriff's deputies originally arrested Bullock in Garberville, which is 67 miles from Eureka, at 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday after he was reported lurking in the bushes of a trailer park.

Knight tells PEOPLE that Bullock appeared to be under the influence of a controlled substance and was arrested for disorderly conduct and violation of probation on a drug case. In April 2013, Bullock was arrested for cocaine possession and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors, the Eureka Times-Standard reports.

At the county jail, Bullock's heartbeat was so high that he was taken to the hospital "where he became more agitated and had to be physically restrained by deputies," according to a statement from the Eureka police department.

Bullock was then booked into jail that afternoon and released at 12:34 a.m. on Wednesday, Knight says. He says it's customary for authorities to hold a subject in this type of case for about four hours, and Bullock was held for roughly twice as long.

At about 2 a.m., officers responded to another call regarding Bullock, this time a suspicious-person complaint. Eureka police concluded that Bullock was not intoxicated and didn't qualify for an emergency psychiatric hold, and they suggested a shelter where he could stay for the night.

Some time later in the morning, a church security guard investigating noises saw a person matching Bullock's description, talked briefly with him and sent him away. Hours later, Freed was found dead in the church rectory.

After he was identified as a suspect in Freed's murder, Bullock was arrested at a house near Redway, the Eureka Times-Standard reported. Freed's missing vehicle, a Nissan Altima, was recovered near the house, the site reported.

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