EUREKA, Calif. - Standing in the darkness outside St. Bernard Catholic Church in Eureka, Calif., Lisa Russ struggled with the idea that her priest may have been killed by a man released from jail despite exhibiting behavior erratic enough for him to be sent to a hospital for evaluation.
"Our police do a good job, but something is broken in our system if we can have people arrested and released," she said Thursday night standing outside the Gothic church built in 1885.
Russ had organized parishioners and their children to cover the church steps with the light of votive candles inside paper bags painted with messages of love, peace and faith.
"We've got people here we want to be caring and compassionate towards. But there's got to be a better way."
Gary Lee Bullock, 43, of Redway, Calif., was taken into custody in the Garberville area by Humboldt County deputies earlier Thursday in the killing of the Rev. Eric Freed, according to a statement by Eureka police. Freed's car was also discovered.
Police said Bullock was initially arrested Tuesday for public intoxication in Garberville and taken 67 miles north to jail in Eureka.
His erratic behavior led police to send him to a hospital for an evaluation. He became agitated and deputies had to restrain him. He was booked into jail for about eight hours and then released shortly after midnight.
At 2 a.m. Wednesday, Eureka police responded to a call about a suspicious person a couple blocks from the jail and about 5 yards from the site where Freed was found. Police said Bullock wasn't intoxicated then and didn't qualify for an emergency psychological hold.
Officers referred him to an emergency shelter for the night.
Later, a security guard heard noise near the church and went to investigate. He saw a man matching Bullock's description and after a short conversation told him to leave the property, police said.
Police did not immediately respond to a call late Thursday seeking more detail on Bullock's release.
Freed's body was found New Year's Day in the rectory at St. Bernard Church after he failed to show up for morning Mass.
It is not clear exactly when or how Freed was killed. Police said his body showed signs of blunt force trauma. Investigators also found indications of forced entry and a struggle.
Under California law, people who are considered a danger to themselves or others can be held involuntarily for mental health treatment for up to 72 hours, said Nicholas Pacilio, a spokesman for the state attorney general.
Law enforcement officials must have probable cause to believe someone meets the criteria before taking them to a hospital or mental health facility for an evaluation. A mental health professional then decides if the person warrants a mental health hold.
If someone is held longer than 72 hours, they are entitled to a lawyer and a hearing before a judge.
Eureka Police Chief Andrew Mills told the Times-Standard newspaper that Bullock did not have a violent criminal record. The newspaper reported court records in Humboldt County showed Bullock was arrested for cocaine possession and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors in April 2013.
Efforts to reach the jail for information on an attorney for Bullock were not successful.