Two years, two months and 17 days after allegedly torturing and murdering Father Eric Freed in the rectory of St. Bernard’s Catholic Church in Eureka, Gary Lee Bullock sat in a Humboldt County courtroom this morning, joined by his defense attorney and facing a prosecution team and a jury of his peers.
That jury, made up of 10 women and two men, has been tasked with holding Bullock accountable on seven felony charges including murder, torture, carjacking and attempted arson. And in his opening statement, Deputy District Attorney Andrew Isaac said there’s really no doubt.
“Mr. Bullock killed Father Freed,” he said bluntly, and he insisted there will be no evidence to the contrary. Bullock was caught on security cameras repeatedly entering and exiting the rectory on the night of the crimes. After his arrest he was recorded in a jail phone call telling his mom, “They have video of me going inside the house. They have me dead to rights.”
That recording was played for the jury this morning. Isaac prepped them by saying that all across America lawyers were telling juries that actions speak louder than words. “In this case we have both,” he said, and then he had DA Investigator Martin Perrone play the recording.
“I could possibly die in prison,” Bullock said plaintively to his mother. She tried to console him, but he sounded desperate.
And yet even with that evidence, the case in complex, Isaac said, because it turns on the issue of intent: Did Bullock intend to kill Father Freed? Did he intend to set the rectory on fire?
The prosecutor then proceeded — deliberately and systematically — to explain the case he plans to make, including the names of each witness he intends to call and the nature of the physical evidence the jury will see. In addition to multi-angle security camera footage, investigators recovered sections of cast iron pipe used to beat the Catholic priest, Isaac said.
A lit cigar had been placed next to a gas burner in an apparent attempt to burn the rectory down, Isaac said. Freed’s body was found on the upstairs floor “cocooned” in bedding that had been soaked in Glenlivet Scotch whisky. A glossy calendar, partially charred, sat on top of this cocooned body, another apparent attempt to “burn the place down.” And as investigators unwrapped the body they found a wooden stake and a “short, club-like chunk of iron pipe,” Isaac said.
Other evidence found on the scene included a broken cell phone, a table with blood on it and a tape dispenser, also covered in blood. Rust and paint found on Freed’s body matched residue from the iron pipe, Isaac said, and chips of wood sticking out of Freed’s leg matched the wooden stake.
The jury will also see what Isaac described as “the single most disturbing piece of evidence in the case.” It looks like a vase but is in fact a pilsner glass with the base broken off, and Isaac said evidence will show that it was shoved into Freed’s mouth, twisted and shoved until it bore hole in his tongue. But that’s not what killed him, Isaac said.
“What killed him was a combination of being beaten and possibly choked,” the attorney told the jury, and he proceeded to explain the gruesome injuries Freed suffered. In his throat, his larynx, cartilage and hyoid bone were all crushed. The orbital bones around both eyes were “busted.”
“What didn’t kill him was the broken spine,” Isaac said, explaining that both the L1 and L2 vertebrae were fractured.
The prosecutor went on to suggest that Bullock’s underlying motivation was to find a way home to Southern Humboldt, where he’d been arrested the previous day before being booked and released from the Humboldt County jail. In fact, Bullock told his wife in another recorded phone call that he didn’t think his family would come pick him up from jail so he decided to “figure out my own way home.”
That way, Isaac said, was stealing Freed’s car, a 2010 Nissan Altima, driving it to his parents’ house near Redway and covering it with leaves and branches. Bullock’s clothes were later found on the property with blood stains that matched Freed’s DNA, Isaac said, and various Freed belongings, including a cigar box, keys and a bible, were found under the bridge at Miranda, along the banks of the South Fork Eel River.
“The evidence will show that Gary Bullock intentionally killed Father Freed,” Isaac said to the jury.
Noticeably absent from Isaac’s opening remarks was any mention of Bullock’s mental faculties. The defendant has entered dual pleas of not guilty and not guilty by reason of insanity on all counts. His attorney, Kaleb Cockrum from the county’s Conflict Counsel office, was offered an opportunity to give an opening statement of his own but chose to reserve that option until the People conclude their case.
After a brief recess, Isaac called his first witness, DA Investigator Perrone, who specializes in computer and cell phone forensics. Perrone spent the remainder of the morning session explaining the technical ins and outs of the DVR security system recovered from church property and the process he used to collect and edit footage that will be shown at trial.
Friends and family of Father Freed sat in the audience portion of the courtroom. From behind it was difficult to read any reactions from Bullock, who sat quiet and still throughout the proceedings dressed in a long-sleeve burgundy button-up.
The case is due to resume Monday morning at 8:30 a.m. Isaac told the jury he expects to wrap up his case by next Friday, and Judge John Feeney predicted the case will wrap up by the middle of next month.
- Judge Orders Psychiatric Evaluation of Bullock, Predicts Early October Trial Date for Priest Murder Case
- Bullock Trial for Murder of Father Freed Postponed Until February
- Jury Selection Begins in Trial of Gary Lee Bullock, Accused of Murdering Catholic Priest
- In Recorded Phone Call, Bullock Pleaded With His Grandma to Put Her House Up for His Bail
- Witnesses Retrace Trail of Evidence in Bullock Murder Trial