A killing 300 miles away doesn't usually reverberate in the Bay Area. But when the victim was a priest as convivial -- and still as local -- as Father Eric Freed, the news hit hard.

Freed was a Japanese scholar, a die-hard USC fan who said Mass for Stanford's Catholic football players, a translator of haiku, a cleric who preached with film, and most of all, a kind man.

None of his friends knows exactly what happened on New Year's Day at St. Bernard Catholic Church in Eureka, the church Freed served. The cops arrested Gary Lee Bullock, 43, in the killing.

Freed, 56, was beaten to death in the rectory of the church. Police said there were signs of a struggle and forced entry. Picked up earlier on New Year's Eve day on public intoxication charges, Bullock had been seen around the church that night.

When word filtered back to the Bay Area, the shock spread wide. From 2003 to 2006, Freed taught religion and served as the chaplain at St. Francis High School in Mountain View. He said Masses for the Japanese community.

"As a priest, he was remarkably available and accessible," said Patricia Tennant, the St. Francis principal. "He was very, very popular on campus."

Spoke Italian

A Southern California native who attended Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Freed went on to study in Italy, where he learned to speak Italian.

A member of the order of Salesians of Don Bosco, he spent two decades in Japan, where he taught high school and developed a deep kinship with the Japanese culture.


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More than a decade ago, he met Hiroshi Takanashi, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing. He helped her translate her book of haiku, "The Experience of the Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima in Poem."

"He loved the Japanese people," said Tennant. "He felt that there was a story to be told, one that hadn't been told."

It went further: Freed taught his students at St. Francis the Japanese custom of standing up when a visiting teacher entered the room. His phone answered first in Japanese and then in English.

Kept up ties

Trying to get back into diocesan work, Freed taught at St. Vincent de Paul High School in Petaluma, and then, beginning in 2007, at Humboldt State University. He returned to St. Francis regularly to help with the school's retreat. Last October, he even taught a class in calligraphy, a favorite topic.

So what happened? Why did such a well-liked man become a victim of such an ugly and brutal crime?

Deputies say they had arrested Bullock in Garberville, 70 miles south of Eureka, earlier on Dec. 31. After wrestling with deputies at the hospital, he was booked into jail and -- no longer drunk -- discharged at 12:43 a.m.

A couple of hours later, he was spotted near the church, and police referred him to a homeless shelter. Still later, a guard at Freed's church told a man matching Bullock's description to leave the premises.

An autopsy was scheduled for Saturday. But if you examine people who knew Freed, you'd find the results are already in. And they're unmistakable: a transection of grief.

Contact Scott Herhold at 408-275-0917 or sherhold@mercurynews.com. Twitter.com/scottherhold.