The murder investigation of 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein, whose body was found partially buried at Borrego Park in Orange County, California, has taken a new and disturbing turn.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the teen’s parents, Gideon and Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, believe their son’s murder to be a “hate crime,” as the victim was gay and had apparently been “hitting on” the suspect, Samuel Woodward, the night of the murder.
“Our son was a beautiful gentle soul who we loved more than anything. 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,” said the grieving parents.
The 20 year-old suspect and the victim were former classmates. They had studied together at the Orange County School of Art.
Investigators reviewed text messages Bernstein had sent two of his female friends last year in June, in which he suggested Woodward may have been romantically interested in him. According to the messages, Woodward had apparently tried to hit on Bernstein and then made him “promise not to tell anyone.”
It appeared Bernstein had suspected Woodward was closeted.
The teenager was stabbed more than 20 times and buried in a shallow grave earlier this month. Parts of his body were exposed after the rain washed off some of the dirt. Woodward, who has been charged with Bernstein’s murder, faces enhanced charges for using a knife, according to Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.
Woodward first drew authorities’ attention after Bernstein’s Snapchat messages indicated he had contacted him on the night he went missing. The victim had been home from college for his winter break, and his parents filed a missing persons report after they found his wallet and glasses in his childhood bedroom, where he had left them before leaving the house that fateful night.
The reports said the suspect was found with “abrasions, scratches and dirt” on hands when he was interviewed. He justified it by saying he had been participating in a “fight club” and had also fallen into a “dirt puddle” while sparring.
Woodward is accused of visiting the crime scene days after the murder. He is also accused of cleaning up the car he used to pick Bernstein up the night of the crime.
Woodward claimed he came to pick Bernstein up after interacting with him on Snapchat. The suspect told the police he drove Bernstein to the park but claimed the victim walked away as soon as they reached their destination. Woodward said he waited for Bernstein for an hour before leaving to meet a girlfriend.
Interestingly, Woodward could not remember the last name or the address of that particular girlfriend, which made his initial account rather suspicious.
He also claimed he returned hours later to look for Bernstein — the time during which he was murdered.
Woodward later claimed Bernstein had kissed him that night. According to the affidavit, his fists were clenched as he also revealed he pushed Bernstein away and wanted to call him a “faggot.” This supports the alleged motive.
Authorities are trying to determine if the murder was indeed a hate crime.
Woodward was also known at 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 water boarding, according to the court papers.
Samuel Woodward was part of the white nationalist organization Vanguard America, this was a hate crime,hope he gets life #JusticeForBlaze— Scarlet ?? (@6Scarlets) January 14, 2018
If convicted, Woodward will face 26 years in prison. According to the Los Angeles Times, prosecutors said they plan to request his bail be set at $2 million.
He declined to discuss his motives during a news conference.
“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 in the news conference. “As a community, we hope this case might serve as an opportunity for tolerance and understanding.”
The district attorney later added in an interview with the ABC News, "We would need evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Sam Woodward did the killing because of a group that the victim might have belonged to. We'd have to show that the reason for the murder was substantially for the reason that he was gay."
Meanwhile, the victim’s parents are desperate for the answers.