Deputies arrested Gary Lee Bullock, 43, of Redway in the bludgeoning death of Rev. Eric Freed. Authorities say Bullock was arrested after a traffic stop in the southern part of Humboldt County. Bullock was a passenger in his stepfather's truck when it was pulled over.
Authorities are still investigating a motive in the slaying.
Investigators say Bullock had been in and out of police custody in the hours leading up to Freed's death.
Bullock was first arrested by Humboldt County deputies for public intoxication in Garberville and taken 67 miles north to jail in Eureka, where he was "rejected due to his erratic behavior."
He was then taken to a hospital for an evaluation and became so agitated that deputies had to restrain him. He was booked into jail for about eight hours but released shortly after midnight.
At around 2 a.m. Thursday, Eureka police responded to a call about a suspicious person a few blocks from the jail, which is very close to Freed's church. Responding officers found Bullock and referred him to an emergency shelter for the night.
Later that night, a security guard heard noise near the church and went to investigate. He saw a man matching Bullock's description and, after a short conversation, told him to leave the property, police said.
It remains unclear exactly when Freed was killed. He was last seen during Tuesday evening Mass and found at 9 a.m. Thursday at St. Bernard Church rectory after he didn't show up for early morning Mass, police said. An autopsy is scheduled for Saturday.
Investigators found signs of forced entry and a struggle. Police also located Freed's missing 2010 Nissan hybrid.
Many parishioners gathered overnight at a somber press conference outside the church, where the beloved priest was remembered for his caring nature.
Freed, who was installed at St. Bernard's in 2011, also taught religious studies at Humboldt State University.
St. Bernard's told ABC News that Freed was planning to use his Wednesday morning sermon to announce his goals for the New Year. The church said the sermon urged parishioners to be happy, thankful and aware that faith is about understanding it's all in God's hands.
The Associated Press and ABC News contributed to this report.