EUREKA, California (CNN) -- Authorities have nabbed a man they believe killed a Roman Catholic priest during a "violent struggle" in a Northern California church rectory, police said.
The suspect, Gary Lee Bullock, was arrested early Thursday afternoon in the southern part of Humboldt County near Garberville, said Eureka Police Chief Andy Mills.
"There's no question in our mind he's responsible for this heinous act," Mills told CNN's Jake Tapper, citing evidence recovered at the crime scene and interviews with eyewitnesses allegedly linking Bullock to the death of the Rev. Eric Freed.
Hours earlier, Mills announced that an arrest warrant had been issued for Bullock and asked for the public's help in tracking him down as well as a 2010 Nissan hybrid belonging to the slain priest.
Freed's body was found inside the rectory of Eureka's St. Bernard Church having suffered "blunt force trauma."
His gruesome death was ruled a homicide by the county coroner on Thursday and a full autopsy was set for Saturday.
The case rattled many in and around the North Coast city whether they were members of the parish where Freed served, part of the nearby public university where he taught or from the community at large.
"Eric knew as well as anybody just how senseless violence could be," said Wiliam Herbrechtsmeier, a professor at Humboldt State University, where Freed was a lecturer. "When a fine person like him is brought down -- that's just tragic."
Mills said Thursday that authorities still didn't have a motive for the killing, speculating it was likely "a crime of opportunity."
"To me, why is the biggest thing that we would like to establish -- to bring a sense of ease and comfort to the community," the police chief said. "But right now, I'm just glad that this incident is done, it is over with, he's in custody (and) the public can take a deep breath."
John Chiv said that he and other St. Bernard parishioners are shocked and "angry" about Freed's death, adding, "It's hard to feel Christian because ... it was brutal."
Said Chiv of a man he described as "very jovial, ... very accessible (and) very loving": "We lost a pastor, we lost a friend and, for many of us, he was like a father figure."
Suspect was 'restrained,' then released
Bullock wasn't unknown to local authorities; in fact, he'd been in custody earlier on the same day that Freed was found dead.
Police explained that, on New Year's Eve, Humboldt County sheriff's deputies responded to reports of a person "acting strangely" in Garberville. They went to the scene and arrested Bullock for public intoxication, taking him to a jail where "he was rejected due to his erratic behavior," Eureka police said in a press release.
Bullock -- who last known address is in Redway, California -- was then moved to a nearby hospital "where he became more agitated and had to be physically restrained by deputies," police added. He was eventually booked into a jail shortly after 4:30 p.m. that day, staying there for over 8 hours before his release at 12:43 a.m. on January 1.
Less than two hours later, police got a call about a suspicious person at St. Bernard Church. Officers found Bullock but, as he wasn't "intoxicated and did not qualify for an emergency psychological hold," didn't detain him, but instead referred him to a shelter, Mills said.
At some point in the hours after that, a guard at Freed's church found a person matching Bullock's description on the premises and told him to leave, police said.
It was at 9 a.m. that authorities were called back to St. Bernard, this time after church staff came across Freed -- who officers and a doctor, who happened to be a parishioner, both determined was already dead. Mills said police later determined there were signs of "forced entry" and the aforementioned struggle.
Priest described as 'genuinely warm individual'
Hours later, mourning parishioners and community leaders gathered outside the church-turned-crime scene to remember the late priest.
Mayor Frank Jager said Freed was a personal friend and a "tremendous person in this community" since his arrival three years ago.
In fact, he'd been part of the greater Santa Rosa diocese since 1999, establishing himself as a "great preacher" and an engaging teacher from his work in Catholic schools, said Msgr. Daniel Whelton.
"He was like an old shoe, just an easy person to be with," said the monsignor, who is the diocese's vicar general. "...He was an upbeat person (who) always saw the glass half full. ... It wasn't about him."
The 56-year-old's loss was felt deeply outside the church as well.
"He was a really, genuinely warm individual," said professor Stephen Cunha, the chairman of Humboldt State University's religious studies department where Freed taught. "... Kind is the word that comes to mind, sensitive."
Just a few days ago, the priest sent a note to his parishioners, thanking them for their support and prayers and wishing
"I cannot tell you how proud and honored I am to be your pastor," Freed wrote in a letter posted on the parish website. "Our parish is alive, joyful and full of faith, hope and charity that define us as Catholic Christians."
While he was relatively new to St. Bernard, Freed had already made an impact there and elsewhere around Eureka -- including with the city's Japanese-American community, as Freed lived in Japan for many years -- Jager told reporters.
"This is an absolutely tremendous loss not only for the St. Bernard's Parish, but for our community generally," the mayor said. "For those of us who believe in prayer, this is the time for that."
Freed's ties to Humbodt State went back even longer. A guest lecturer, he wrote a book about the first atomic bomb and also taught about the New Testament, connecting with Christians and non-Christians alike.
"He was very well respected, very well liked and had a tremendous working knowledge as well as academic knowledge," Cunha said. "... To think that he passed in this way: It's just layers of grief and shock."
Herbrechtsmeier said he got to know Freed well not just at Humboldt State but outside as well, often joining the enthusiastic pastor -- a diehard University of Southern California Trojan fan -- to watch sports and enjoy some laughs.
Noting that students at the state university loved Freed -- who was also deeply involved in that school's Catholic student group, the Newman Center -- Cunha added: "This was not some stuffy clergyman. He was very much someone that you could sit down and speak with...
"He connected with everybody."
CNN's Greg Botelho reported and wrote this story from Atlanta, and CNN's Dan Simon reported from Eureka. CNN's Augie Martin, Devon Sayers and Suzanne Presto contributed to this report.
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