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January 17, 2018

Suspect charged with murder in 'senseless' slaying of Penn student Blaze Bernstein

Orange County D.A. 'absolutely not' ruling out hate crime

Investigations Homicide
01172018_Bernstein_Woodward Credits/ / Orange County (Calif.) Prosecutor's Office

Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 20, right, is charged in the murder of University Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein, left, in California.

Samuel Lincoln Woodward, the 20-year-old southern California man accused of killing University of Pennsylvania sophomore Blaze Bernstein, was formally charged with one felony count of murder at an arraignment Wednesday morning as new details emerged about the Ivy League student's violent death.

The two young men, former classmates at the Orange County School for the Arts, met up on the night of January 2 while Bernstein was home for winter break with his parents in Lake Forest, a community about 41 miles southeast of Los Angeles.

Woodward initially told police that Bernstein wandered into the woods at Borrego Park and never returned. A week-long search for the 19-year-old pre-med student ended when his body was discovered in a shallow grave along the perimeter of the park. DNA evidence found in Woodward's possession linked him to the death.

At a press conference Wednesday morning, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas confirmed reports that Bernstein was stabbed to death and that police immediately began investigating the case as a homicide.

A 16-page search warrant affidavit, details of which have been published by the Orange County Register, noted multiple inconsistencies in Woodward's statements to police. Investigators observed nervous behavior during their interview with Woodward at Sheriff's Headquarters, where the suspect was found with scuffs on his hands and dirt under his fingernails.

Police first identified Woodward as a person of interest after following a trail of messages found on Bernstein's social media accounts, including correspondence on Snapchat the night before his disappearance.

The affidavit reportedly states that in June, Bernstein told two female friends that Woodward was about to "hit on me," but he had to promise not to tell anyone.

"But I have texted everyone, uh oh," Bernstein reported wrote.

Woodward reportedly told investigators Bernstein had kissed him on the lips the night he disappeared and that Woodward had pushed him away. Investigators noted that Woodward "clenched his jaw and fists" as he recounted the story, adding that "he wanted Blaze to get off of him."

Rackauckas declined to delve into the specifics of the investigation at Wednesday's press conference. He confirmed only that Woodward is accused of cleaning his vehicle after Bernstein's death and visiting the crime scene days after the murder took place.

The exact time and location of Bernstein's killing remain under investigation.

"This is a senseless murder of a young man who possessed the combination of a high-caliber mind and the heart of a poet," said Rackauckas, adding that Bernstein should have been back in Philadelphia for his spring semester at Penn.

As Bernstein's family and friends gathered for a memorial service on Monday, Blaze's parents issued a statement addressing media reports about the circumstances surrounding their son's death.

"We are saddened to hear, on the day we laid our son to rest, that gruesome details of the cause of his death were published. Our son was a beautiful, gentle soul who we loved more than anything," Bernstein's parents 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. 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."

Rackauckas said prosecutors continue to investigate whether there is sufficient evidence proving Bernstein's death rises to the level of a hate crime. 

"We're looking through all matters of communication, all the things that were said and done," Rackauckas said. "We're trying to determine that."

Woodward reportedly was known for holding conservative beliefs during his high school years. A review of his social media accounts suggested Woodward had shown a troubling pattern of violent musings.

Following his arrest last Friday, concerned residents of Orange County urged Rackauckas to deny Woodward bail in order to protect the safety of the community.

Rackauckas said Wednesday it was likely that bail will be set, though prosecutors intend to make it as high as they possibly can.

Any evidence of premeditation factoring into Bernstein's death won't be evaluated until further down the line during a trial, Rackauckas added, but a determination of special circumstances could lead to additional charges as the investigation continues.

"We're going to bring the maximum charges that we can bring based on the evidence," the prosecutor said.