Bullock trial’s insanity riddle

The perfect suspect sometimes makes a poor culprit.

– Georges Simenon

Paul Mann
Mad River Union

EUREKA – A jury of 10 women and two men is asked to decide if murder suspect Gary Lee Bullock, 46, of Redway, was insane when he beat to death Father Eric Freed, 56, in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2014.

The antecedent question, of course, is what constitutes insanity.

Is it a psychological supposition or a scientific fact? Is it defined empirically or is it an elusive mental state projected by the “normal” upon the “abnormal?”

Or is it an organic brain malfunction that nullifies moral responsibility for one’s acts?

Freud postulated decades ago that the normal person has yet to be found and when found, cured.

That is, sanity and insanity are relative to a somewhat amorphous social norm, although “everybody knows it when they see it.”

In recent years, Dr. David Buss, a University of Texas-Austin scholar, has said much the same thing as Freud did long ago, based on research of more than 400,000 FBI files and interviews with almost 400 murderers.

“Though we may like to think that murderers are either pathological misfits or hardened criminals, the vast majority of murders are committed by people who, until the day they kill, seem perfectly normal,” according to Buss. He does not define normal.

Alternatively, Loyola University psychologist James Garbarino, author of Listening to Killers, argues a definite pattern is discernible, at least among the 20 male murderers he examined for his book.   

Most of them have what Gabarino calls a devastating psychological history. Usually it couples severe childhood trauma – years of painful physical and verbal abuse of a small, defenseless youngster – with a dysfunctional family or retrograde social conditions. The latter are typically rooted in poverty, poor education, violence, alcohol and other drugs or in some psychologically lethal combination of them.

Gabarino describes these murderers as “untreated, traumatized children who inhabit and control the minds, hearts and bodies of adult men.” They wind up at an existential dead end, which may culminate in a paroxysm of violence.

The Bullock jurors do not know, because they have not been told, whether the defendant falls into this category of male arrested development, puer aeternas.

Nor do they know what Bullock’s motive was in bludgeoning to death the unarmed Freed, who was taken by surprise in the wee hours in the presumed safety of his rectory. Was it a frenzied murder or a methodical one?

Criminologists split murders into two categories, “instrumental” (for money, drugs, or some other material gain) and “expressive” (emotionally fueled, as by sudden fury).

Neither Deputy District Attorney Andrew nor Deputy Defender Kaleb Cockrum has adduced a motive; they are not required to, despite the fact that it is almost certainly on jurors’ minds.

Rather, the jury is asked to decide if Bullock “is not guilty by reason of insanity,” a precept first enshrined in Western law via the M’Naghten (or McNaughton) Rules. They grew out of an 1843 British murder case in which the perpetrator mistakenly shot and killed the secretary of Prime Minister Robert Peel.

By that standard, Cockrum’s burden is to demonstrate either 1) Bullock did not understand the nature of his criminal acts or 2) did not understand that his acts were morally wrong. This is the law’s definition of insanity, not that of science or medicine, which ultimately is ineffable.   

Cockrum called nine witnesses to the stand to support his case, including Bullock’s Redway neighbors, a Humboldt County Sheriff’s sergeant, a senior Sheriff corrections deputy, a Eureka police officer, a private security guard, a former district attorney’s investigator and John Bruno, Bullock’s stepfather.

They had encounters with Bullock in multiple situations in Redway on New Year’s Eve, Dec. 31, 2013, the day before the murder, and in the early morning hours of Jan. 1, 2014 as the slaying was about to unfold.

In those 48 hours or so, witnesses independently described Bullock as upset, frantic and confrontational. He was suffering from delusions that his two daughters had been kidnapped by a neighbor. He wondered if his wife was hidden inside the microwave of another neighbor, according to neighbors.

A Redway woman who knew him well said he was nervous and his face was contorted. He walked erratically, sweated profusely and looked “strange” when she encountered him late in the morning of Dec. 31.

About 1:40 that afternoon, Sheriff’s Sergeant Kenneth Swithenbank found Bullock crouching in bushes in a Redway trailer park, “very agitated, sweating, not making much sense.” Bullock admitted he was on speed and heroin, the officer said. Bullock was taken into custody and driven to his brother’s house. On the way he kicked at the inside of the patrol car door, forcing the officers to restrain him by his ankles. At that point Bullock “was screaming unintelligibly” and making “crowing” sounds, the sergeant said.

Hauled off to the Humboldt County jail in Eureka 66 miles north, Bullock alternated between periods of quiet and periodic outbursts in the squad car, telling Swithenbank that he had “saved” Bullock and served as the arrestee’s “archangel.”

After spending four hours or so in a “sober up” cell, Bullock was released a little before 1 a.m. Jan. 1, 2014. A corrections deputy, Devin Strong, who escorted him outside, testified that Bullock asked, “Can I release you from your prison?” suggesting odd behavior.

Having sobered up, Bullock did not behave in a threatening manner or show any signs of mental breakdown, said Strong, who has received crisis intervention training and is professionally qualified to interpret signs of psychological disturbance.

Evidently, Bullock wandered from the jail over to 615 H St. and the St. Bernard Catholic Parish grounds, where he was soon accosted by a Eureka police officer, Corey Crnich. He had pulled up in response to a report of an intoxicated man on the premises.

Bullock apologized, saying, “I’m sorry officer, I don’t mean to disturb anyone. I’m lost, I was just released from Humboldt County jail.” Crnich asked why he had been arrested and Bullock answered, “I think for public intoxication but I’m not sure.”

Crnich directed him to the Eureka Rescue Mission, a 25 minute walk. Bullock did not ask for a ride and Crnich did not offer one because at that hour, about 2 a.m. on New Year’s Day morning, the bars had just closed and officers were predictably busy.

Next, at about 3 a.m. or a little before, Tim Clark, a private security guard on the grounds, found Bullock still at St. Bernard and “pretty normal,” although “somewhat evasive and not [making] much eye contact.”

Clark testified he was calm. “He told me he was cold and he was looking for shelter.” He was squatting and he had a wood garden stake, one of the reputed murder weapons.

Bullock appeared to be homeless, Clark said. Asked if the defendant understood him, the guard answered, “Yes, he did understand what I was saying to him” – another apparent setback to the defense. “I told him he’d better behave himself and I hoped he’d have a good night.”

Questioned by prosecutor Isaac, Clark said Bullock “did not scare me with the stick.”

As a St. Bernard parishioner, Clark said “it blew my mind” when he heard Freed had been murdered that very morning.

“I shoulda done more,” but “he [Bullock] fooled me,” he lamented.

Bullock’s demeanor and behavior were radically different when he showed up later on New Year’s day in Redway after stealing Freed’s car to escape the crime scene and drive home – further evidence, according to Isaac, that the suspect knew what he was doing and was sane.                  

But when he arrived abruptly at his stepfather’s home in the upstairs living room, “he didn’t look good at all,” John Bruno testified.

He recalled that Bullock promptly stepped back outside, where Bruno followed him to the rear of the house. “He was waving his arms and just talking stuff, biblical things, just being weird, waving a tent pole over his head.”

Bullock invoked the Archangels Gabriel and Michael and indicated he was in touch with “spirits to help us,” Bruno testified. (Bruno’s wife, Carol, has Lyme disease.)

Bullock disappeared for some time on the 80 acres of Bruno’s property. When he returned to the house, near the kitchen window, he was speaking “a lot of gibberish” and wearing three black bungee cords on each arm and a pink one on his neck. “He did mention the Archangel Michael again,” Bruno said, “and the Archangel Michael somehow was reincarnated into him.”

Asked if Bullock was intoxicated, Bruno said, “Intoxicated is not the right word. He was just ‘way out there’ ... he was definitely not sane, that’s just my opinion.”

Isaac’s rebuttal of the defense was prompt and succinct: “Strange behavior is not insanity,” he declared, and intoxication isn’t either.

That Bullock collected a wood garden stake and a piece of iron pipe on the rectory grounds showed his intent and design to kill Freed, Isaac argued.

He tried four times to conceal the crime, firm evidence he was thinking rationally. He made two attempts to burn the rectory, with Freed’s body inside; he dumped the priest’s personal effects over Miranda Bridge on the way back to Redway; and he sought to conceal the stolen car with branches and brush on the Bruno property.

All were acts of a rational being capable of reason and calculation.

For himself, Bullock was quoted in court as saying, “Drugs make me evil.” Drugs, not insanity.

Statistically, Cockrum and his client are unlikely to win the case. The insanity defense is lodged in less than one percent of felony cases nationwide and they are successful only about 25 percent of the time.


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