The murder of a beloved priest in Eureka on New Year’s Day has left Del Norte’s own Catholic leader and his flock shaken.
Father Adam Kotas, the pastor at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Crescent City, is preaching forgiveness as he helps his own parishioners and those in Eureka grieve for Father Eric Freed, who was killed in the St. Bernard’s Catholic Church rectory.
As details emerge regarding Freed’s death, Kotas said he and his parishioners are becoming increasingly disturbed and concerned for his own safety. New security measures will be implemented at St. Joseph, he said.
The church has been subjected to vandalism and burglaries, one occurring last month. Kotas, who lives in the rectory next door to the church, said he has had to turn away people, many of whom are mentally ill or homeless, who knock on his door late at night seeking help.
“We really don’t have services in Del Norte County for very disturbed individuals, who then look to the church, whether it’s the Catholic church or the Methodist church,” he said. “When the church refuses to help, people ... get upset at the church and seek revenge.”
Kotas said he thinks that may be the case with Gary Lee Bullock, the 44-year-old Redway man accused of killing Freed. Bullock, who had been released from jail at 12:43 a.m. after a public intoxication arrest, was found twice on the Eureka church’s grounds early Jan. 1, authorities said.
During one contact with a Eureka police officer, Bullock was reportedly howling in a parking lot before entering the church, according to the Times-Standard newspaper. A side window of the rectory was broken into and the murder weapons appear to be a wooden stake and metal pipe found at the scene, authorities said.
The use of a wooden stake and the act of howling is generally associated with something “satanic” in nature, Kotas said. This makes him think that Freed was targeted because he was a priest.
“It’s obvious that this was a hate crime, which is the most disturbing to people in my community and to me personally,” Kotas said. “About two weeks before Christmas we had a gentleman break into the church safe. He destroyed the entire safe. That was motivated by theft, but this is motivated by pure hate.”
Parishioners at St. Joseph have installed surveillance cameras on the grounds, which Kotas can monitor from his office. He said he will get a double-door in place of the rectory’s front door, and will remove the screen doors on his porch. The church is also in the process of making sure its windows are secure.
Kotas is also concerned about the jail’s practice of releasing inmates late at night. Many don’t have anywhere to go and sometimes wind up at the church.
“Last night at about 1 a.m. somebody was knocking at my door looking for shelter, and they kept knocking and ringing my doorbell,” Kotas said Tuesday. “I called the police and then after they came they said, ‘Well we’ve already had run-ins today and we’ve told him to stay away.’ It illustrates that we really don’t have any services for the mentally ill and they’re turning to the church.”
Kotas said he has also spoken with Bishop Robert Vasa, the leader of the Santa Rosa Diocese, which includes Eureka and Crescent City, about reaching out to Catholic Charities, a nationwide organization that helps people regardless of religious, social or economic background.
Catholic Charities could work with Del Norte County officials to increase services offered to the homeless and mentally ill, Kotas said.
“I gave her $5 and told her to go to Jack in the Box,” Layton said, adding that it was her own money, not the church’s. “People come into the church and they are very well aware that the church is supposed to be helpful, but we’re not social services and we’re not mental health services and we have limited resources.”
Since Freed’s death in Eureka, security has been moved to the front burner for the United Methodist Church as well, Layton said. Church staff members are asked to not leave the building alone after dark, and to lock the door if they are going to be the only person in the building. And groups meeting at the church are asked to “sweep the building” before they leave to make sure no one is left behind who shouldn’t be, Layton said.
For those who do come to the church seeking assistance, Layton said she has worked out a voucher system with some local motels and to pay for gasoline or a bus ticket. She’ll sometimes meet the Southwest Point transit bus to Medford, Ore., and pay the driver.
“We have no cash in the building,” she said. “That’s always my ace in the hole. I don’t have cash and I don’t deal in cash.”
Freed’s death has also shaken Layton. She said she heard on the police scanner Tuesday about someone in Beachfront Park who had just been released from jail and was howling at the moon.
“That struck a chord of fear in me,” she said. “What is coming out of Eureka, it was an attack on who (Freed) was and what he represented, and that is frightening.”
As he struggles to make sense of his colleague’s death, Kotas tells his parishioners that it’s OK to be angry, but they shouldn’t let anger turn into hate.
Kotas was a student in 2008 when he met Freed, who was the first priest to call Kotas when he took over at St. Joseph in 2012.
Kotas, who attended Freed’s funeral Monday, said he looked to the more experienced priest for guidance, especially because Crescent City’s problems with drugs, homelessness and unemployment are similar to Eureka’s.
“Father Eric was the type of priest who would always try to give people back their faith in faith,” he said, quoting from Vasa, who spoke at Freed’s funeral. “He was known to be open to everyone, whether they were Catholic or not. In that sense he was a great role model for me. I hope to carry on his legacy in trying to give people back their faith in faith.”