Orange County

Former Classmate Charged With Murder in Stabbing Death of Pennsylvania Student

The suspect stabbed 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein 'multiple times,' then buried the remains at an Orange County park, according to prosecutors

A former high school classmate was charged with murder Wednesday in the stabbing death of a University of Pennsylvania student who was home in Orange County visiting family during winter break.

Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 20, of Newport Beach was arrested Friday. He is accused of picking up 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein from his family's Lake Forest home, then stabbing him "multiple times" with a knife before burying his remains in Borrego Park in Lake Forest. Woodward drove Bernstein to a shopping center parking lot on Portola Parkway in Foothill Ranch before the slaying, the district attorney said.

Details about the events prior to the Jan. 2 slaying were not immediately available. Bernstein's remains were found a week later in a shallow grave in the park, which the suspect visited after the killing, according to the district attorney's office.

The two were classmates at Orange County School for the Arts in Santa Ana. District Attorney Tony Rackaukas said there was no evidence that the two were friends in high school.

"As far as motive is concerned... we have a ways to go," Rackaukas said.

Woodward contacted Bernstein via Snapchat Jan. 2 before the two met.

He was arrested on suspicion of homicide after DNA evidence linked him to the death of Bernstein, a pre-med student who was home on winter break when he was killed. Woodward remains jailed without bail.

Woodward's mother, Michele, made her first public statement about the case Tuesday, asking for privacy.

"I would like it very much if everyone would respect our privacy and the privacy of the Bernstein family," she told NBC4 outside her home. "This is a time of great suffering and we would ask that you would respect that suffering. Thank you very much.''

Meanwhile, Bernstein's parents -- Gideon and Jeanne -- issued a statement expressing dismay at media reports about the cause of their son's death. The Orange County Register reported Monday, the day of Bernstein's funeral, that he had been stabbed more than 20 times and the killing may have been an act of rage sparked by Bernstein's attempt to kiss Woodward the night he disappeared.

"Our son was a beautiful, gentle soul who we loved more than anything," the Bernsteins said. "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. 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." 

"We're looking to see whether or not that might be supported," Rackaukas said Wednesday when asked whether the crime will include hate-crime allegations.

Bernstein disappeared around 11 p.m. Jan. 2 at Borrego Park in Lake Forest. He was reported missing the next day by his family after he missed a dental appointment and failed to answer telephone calls and text messages. After a weeklong search, his body was found Jan. 9 on the outskirts of the park, in a shallow grave.

Woodward, who was interviewed by authorities during the search, returned to the site after the slaying while he was under surveillance, according to the DA's office. He also was seen cleaning out his vehicle, prosecutors said.

Sheriff's officials said Woodward drove Bernstein to the park the night of Jan. 2. He told investigators that Bernstein wandered into the park and disappeared. Woodward eventually left the park at 1 a.m., telling investigators he drove to a girlfriend's house in Tustin, but returned about 3:40 a.m. when Bernstein still had not surfaced, according to a search warrant affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register.

In subsequent interviews, however, Woodward was unable to remember the girlfriend's name or address, according to the affidavit. Woodward also had scratches and abrasions on his hands, which he attributed to a "fight club" in which he was involved. He also had dirt under his fingernails, with Woodward saying he had fallen into a mud puddle.

Orange County Undersheriff Don Barnes said DNA evidence tied Woodward to Bernstein's death, although they have not provided any specifics. The Register reported that the DNA was Bernstein's blood found on a sleeping bag in Woodward's possession.

Copyright CNS - City News Service
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