Catholic priest found slain in California church rectory

By M. Alex Johnson and F. Brinley Bruton, NBC News

A Catholic priest was found dead in the rectory of his California church Wednesday morning, and police are investigating it as a murder, authorities said.

Father Eric Freed’s body was discovered at St. Bernard’s Catholic Church in Eureka, Calif., according to Mayor Frank Jager.

“Father Eric was a friend of mine, a tremendous person in the community,” Jager said in a video of a press conference posted on local news website lostcoastoutpost.com. “This is absolutely a tremendous loss not only for the St. Bernard’s parish but for our community in general.”

Police Chief Andrew Mills told reporters that staff members called police about 9 a.m. (noon ET) on Wednesday when they found a man’s body.

He did not identify Freed as the victim during the press conference, although Jager did.

The death did not appear to have occurred under “normal circumstances” so police launched a murder investigation, Mills said.

He did not offer any details from the crime scene. No one was in custody, and police released little additional information, but they did say were seeking Freed’s dark gray Nissan Altima hybrid.

The church canceled its 7 p.m. Mass and posted tribute to Freed on its website.

In his Christmas message, posted on the church’s website (.pdf), Freed declared that he was “proud and honored … to be your pastor.”

“Our parish is alive, joyful, and full of faith, hope, and charity that define us as Catholic Christians,” he wrote.

Representatives from St. Bernard’s were not immediately available for comment.

Freed was beloved in Eureka, especially among its sizable Japanese community, Jager said.

“Those of us that believe in prayer, this is the time for that, and I hope we can find out who did this,” he said.

Officials said the street in front of the church would be blocked off for people who want to gather to pray.

 

This story was originally published on Wed Jan 1, 2014 11:41 PM EST

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