Investigators are working to determine whether the slaying of 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein was a “hate crime,” officials said Wednesday.
Samuel Lincoln Woodward, a 20-year-old former high school classmate of Bernstein, was charged Wednesday with his murder, as well as a sentence enhancement for using a knife, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced at a news conference.
Police discovered Bernstein’s body, which had been stabbed over 20 times, buried in a shallow grave Jan. 9 in a park in Lake Forest, California, roughly 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The discovery came nearly a week after his parents reported him missing on Jan. 3, while he was home in Lake Forest during his college winter break.
Woodward had picked up Bernstein in his car after interacting with him on Snapchat the night he went missing, the suspect told police, according to a search affidavit obtained by The Orange County Register. He reportedly claimed they had driven to Borrego Park that night, when Bernstein exited the vehicle and walked away.
After waiting an hour for Bernstein to return, Woodward said, he left the park to meet a girlfriend, whose last name and address Woodward told police he could not remember. He said he returned hours later to look for Bernstein.
Detectives found “abrasions, scratches and dirt” on Woodward’s hands when they interviewed him last week, according to the affidavit. When asked about the lacerations, Woodward reportedly said he had been participating in a “fight club” and had fallen into a “dirt puddle” while sparring.
According to the affidavit, Woodward’s fists were clenched as he claimed Bernstein had kissed him on the lips during their time together that night. He told investigators that he pushed Bernstein away and wanted to call him a “faggot.”
Text messages reviewed by investigators suggested Woodward knew Bernstein may have been trying to sexually pursue him, according to the Register. The affidavit indicated Bernstein had suspected Woodward was closeted.
Woodward was going to “hit on me,” Bernstein reportedly told a friend in a text conversation in June. “He made me promise not to tell anyone … but I have texted every one, uh oh.”
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. Blaze Bernstein’s parents in a letter to the Los Angeles Times
Bernstein’s parents, Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, wrote a letter to the Los Angeles Times that suggested their son’s killing might have been a hate crime.
“Our son was a beautiful gentle soul who we loved more than anything,” they wrote. “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.”
The letter continued: “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 [a] hate crime.”
According to the court document, Woodward was known at his high school for espousing conservative political and cultural beliefs. His social media posts indicated he was a proponent of guns, the Bible and a torture technique known as waterboarding, reported the Register.
Rackauckas declined to discuss a motive during Wednesday’s news conference, noting that the investigation was ongoing.
“Our priority on this brutal murder of a 19-year-old Ivy League student is to make sure that Woodward is brought to justice and held accountable,” Rackauckas said Wednesday. “As a community, we hope this case might serve as an opportunity for tolerance and understanding.”
Woodward could face 26 years to life in prison if convicted. He is being held at Orange County Jail. Prosecutors said they plan to request his bail be set at $2 million, according to the Times.