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Father Eric Freed was found dead in the rectory of his church in Eureka, California, on Jan. 1, 2014.Courtesy of Bernard Fosnaugh / Courtesy of Bernard Fosnaugh

A popular Catholic priest viciously murdered in his California church on New Year’s Day was clubbed to death with a wooden stake and metal gutter pipe, authorities said.

The Rev. Eric Freed, 56, died of blunt force trauma, although officials in the small, north coast city of Eureka declined to provide additional details Tuesday.

Police were called to St. Bernard Catholic Church, where Freed had served for the past five years, on the morning of Jan. 1. Staff found Freed in the rectory around 9 a.m. after he failed to show up for Mass.

Authorities identified a suspect, Gary Lee Bullock, and charged him with a special allegation of torture, as well as burglary, arson and auto theft.

Gary Lee Bullock is a suspect in the murder of Father Eric Freed.Eureka Police Department

In an unsettling coincidence, local law enforcement said they had two separate run-ins with Bullock in the hours before Freed was found dead.

Through their interaction with Bullock, which included an arrest for public intoxication, they were able to pin him to the scene of the crime.

After the discovery of Freed’s body later that morning, deputies issued an arrest warrant for Bullock. The priest’s Nissan Altima hybrid was also reported missing.

Authorities had already been in contact with Bullock’s family, and when he arrived at their home, they turned him in, police said.

Mills declined to provide a motive for the murder, but said evidence at the church rectory shows “he attempted to set the house on fire.”

Bullock pleaded not guilty Monday and was being held in Humboldt County jail. His bail was set at $1.2 million.