The family of a murdered pre-med college student from Orange County believes he may have been the victim of a hate crime, though prosecutors did not include that charge in their announcement Wednesday.
Nineteen-year-old Blaze Bernstein’s murder made national headlines after his body, with more than 20 stab wounds, was discovered in a shallow grave in a park in Lake Forest on January 9, a week after he disappeared.
Bernstein’s high school classmate, Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 20, of Newport Beach, was arrested on January 12 after DNA evidence found at the grave and in Woodward’s car linked him to the slaying. No murder weapon has been found.
At a news conference on Wednesday, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced that Woodward is being charged with one count of felony murder with sentencing enhancement for “personal use of a knife.” If found guilty Woodward could face anywhere from 26 years to life in state prison.
Woodward has not yet entered a plea. He was scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday, but the arraignment was postponed to February 2.
Orange County District Attorney’s office spokesperson Michelle Van Der Linden told Los Angeles Blade that Judge Sheila F. Hanson “granted the people’s request for no bail.” Woodward is being held at the Orange County jail.
According to a search warrant affidavit, which the Orange County Register obtained before it was sealed, Woodward claimed that Bernstein tried to kiss him on the lips.
During questioning, Woodward told investigators the kiss was unwanted and he pushed Bernstein away, according to the affidavit. Detectives noted that Woodward clenched his jaw and fists when recounting the incident, telling them he wanted to call Bernstein a “faggot” and tell him to get off him.
Rackauckas has not filed any hate crime charges against Woodward, saying the case is still under investigation. The description in the affidavit suggests Woodward might want to use the disreputable “gay panic” defense, positing the killing as an act of rage as the result of the victim trying to kiss him.
“As we discover more in our investigation, or if anyone comes forward, we are always able to amend the charges to include a hate crime,” Van Der Linden told LA Blade.
Upon learning that the murder may have been an act of rage, the result of gay-panic, Equality California called for a thorough investigation.
“We are saddened by the horrific loss of Blaze Bernstein, who lived his life as a proud member of the LGBTQ community. We extend our deepest condolences to his family,” said Rick Zbur, Equality California executive director in a statement. “We expect a thorough investigation into the claims that this was a hate-crime motivated by ‘gay-panic.’”
Saying Bernstein and his family deserve justice, Equality California added: “We are horrified by the details emerging that this senseless act of violence may have been motivated by homophobic sentiments, and if this is in fact the case, we hope this hate crime is prosecuted at the full-extent of the law.”
Although information indicating Bernstein was gay did not come out in initial reports, his parents appeared to confirm it once the Orange County Register reported the details of his death.
“Our son was a beautiful, gentle soul who we loved more than anything,” Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper Bernstein wrote in a blog posting. “We were proud of everything he did and who he was. He had nothing to hide. We are in solidarity with our son and the LGBTQ community.”
They added that the investigation was continuing, writing, “There is still much discovery to be done and if it is determined that this was a hate crime, we will cry not only for our son, but for LGBTQ people everywhere that live in fear or who have been victims of hate crime.”
Bernstein, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, was home for the winter break visiting his parents in Lake Forest. After arranging via Snapchat to meet for a late night visit, Woodward picked up Bernstein at approximately 11 p.m. on January 2 and drove to the parking lot of a Lake Forest Hobby Lobby store, near Borrego Park.
Bernstein’s parents reported him missing the next day when he missed a dental appointment and they found his wallet and glasses in his bedroom. His body was discovered a week later in Borrego Park in Lake Forest after rains exposed parts of the remains.
Bernstein, who weighed 135 pounds, and Woodward, who weighs 185 pounds, both attended high school at the prestigious Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana.
Last summer, Bernstein indicated to friends via text messages that he thought Woodward was sexually interested in him, but that “he made me promise not to tell anyone.”
Blood found on a sleeping bag in Woodward’s rental car matched that of Bernstein. Woodward’s hands and arms had scratches and abrasions and there was dirt under his fingernails. Woodward told investigators the scratches were from a “fight club” and the dirt came when he fell in a muddy puddle.
Woodward told detectives Bernstein got out of the car after the attempted kiss and went to the nearby park. Woodward said he drove to see a girlfriend in Tustin, but could not tell investigators the girlfriend’s address or last name.
Gideon Bernstein reported that his son was a pre-med student who intended to major in psychology and minor in chemistry. Blaze Bernstein had recently been named the managing editor of Penn Appétit, a student-run food magazine at the Ivy League university.
More than 500 people attended Bernstein’s memorial service held on Monday at a synagogue in Irvine. There, he was eulogized as a personable, sensitive and innovative young man with a passion for gourmet cooking and writing.