UPDATE, JAN. 29, 4:39 A.M.: Samuel Lincoln Woodward, the 20-year-old accused of murdering former 19-year-old classmate Blaze Bernstein, has been linked to a hate group by a nonprofit investigative journalism team. This is key because Woodward has so far been charged with one felony count of murder and a sentencing enhancement for personal use of a knife. But Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas has said a special circumstances hate crime allegation could also be filed if his office believes it can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.
Under the current charges, Woodward could be sentenced to 26 years to life in state prison with a conviction, but being found guilty of a special-circumstances murder could set him up for life without the possibility or parole or even the death penalty, according to authorities.
Which is why the ProPublica report “California Murder Suspect Said to Have Trained With Extremist Hate Group” is so important.
Reporters A.C. Thompson, Ali Winston and Jake Hanrahan report that “three people with detailed knowledge of Woodward’s recent past” tied the murder suspect to Atomwaffen Division, “an armed Fascist group with the ultimate aim of overthrowing the U.S. government through the use of terrorism and guerrilla warfare.” Within the past eight months, the organization that celebrates Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson “has been tied to four other murders and an elaborate bomb plot,” according to the ProPublica team.
Brian Levin, the director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino, reportedly told the Orange County Register of Atomwaffen Division recruitment: “Upscale, young, angry, white youth are the exact demographic these newer hate groups want. We’re in an era where bigots are more likely to wear collared shirts than hoods.”
Bernstein was gay and Jewish.
ORIGINAL POST, JAN. 17, 4:39 P.M.: Prosecutors are examining evidence that could produce hate crime counts in the murder of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas confirmed at a press conference this morning.
This was after Samuel Lincoln Woodward was formally charged with one count of felony murder and a sentencing enhancement for personal use of a knife that, with a conviction, could send the Newport Beach 20-year-old to state prison for 26 years to life.
However, if a special circumstances allegation of a hate crime is added, Woodward could get a sentence of life without the possibility of parole or even the death penalty if he is found guilty.
After a body found in Lake Forest on Jan. 9 was positively identified as Bernstein, and news reports indicated he had been stabbed more than 20 times and buried in a shallow grave on the perimeter of Borrego Park, his family posted the following statement on BlazeBernstein.org:
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. 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.
Now is the time to set aside fear, ignorance and judgement. It is time to love. Love each other. Be good. Do good and honor Blaze’s memory.
Asked today by a reporter if there is evidence in this case of a hate crime in the murder, Rackauckas replied, “This is an ongoing investigation. We are continuing to investigate; we’re looking through all matters of communication, all things that were said and done and working to try to determine that. We have an obligation to file charges only if there is sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that occurred. A hate crime or special circumstances allegation requires that level of proof, so we’re looking for that evidence and if and when we find it, we will amend the charges.”
“We’re open to all of the evidence. We’re looking at all of the evidence, some is in the form of communications between [Woodward and Bernstein].”
Here is video of the press conference:
On Jan. 3, Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper Bernstein contacted the Orange County Sheriff’s Department because their son had missed a dental appointment. They had searched his room and found his belongings, including credit cards and eyeglasses. Investigators looked at the teen’s Snapchat conversations and discovered a recent interaction with Woodward.
The pair had been classmates at Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana. Bernstein was currently a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania planning to study pre-med, but he came home for winter break. Via Snapchat, he and Woodward agreed to meet.
In interviews with sheriff’s investigators, Woodward said he picked Bernstein up at his Lake Forest residence around 11 p.m. on Jan. 2 and drove to the parking lot of Hobby Lobby on Portola Parkway in Foothill Ranch. Later that night, Woodward said, they continued on to Borrego Park, where Bernstein got out of the car and walked alone into the park to meet a waiting friend. Woodward claimed he waited an hour for Bernstein to return, drove off for some time and came back later and searched the park only to come up empty.
Woodward’s explanation set off intense, multiple searches of Borrego Park by a 25-member team of deputies, police K-9 dogs, drones and the sheriff’s helicopter. Kobe Bryant, Jeremy Piven and Mayim Bialik were among those who posted pleas via social media to help find Bernstein. A local missing person case became a national story.
Finally, on Jan. 9, a shallow grave was exposed on the perimeter of Borrego Park due to rains that passed through the area.
“We have just learned that the OC Sheriff’s Dept and Coroner’s office has confirmed our family’s worst fears and have positively identified our son Blaze’s body,” says Gideon Bernstein in a family statement that was posted on Facebook. “Blaze was brilliant, colorful, and charismatic; who shined light on all of the lives of the people and communities he touched. Our family is devastated by the news. We–like so many of you around the world–love Blaze and wanted nothing more than his safe return.”
Authorities quickly revealed they had launched a homicide investigation, but details about the No. 1 suspect did not become public until the Southern California News Group, which includes the Orange County Register, got ahold of a 16-page affidavit filed by a sheriff’s investigator. In it, it was revealed:
* Woodward, when asked where he had gone when he drove away from the park, answered his girlfriend’s home, but he could not come up with her last name nor where exactly she lived.
* He had dirt under his fingernails, explaining to investigators he had fallen into mud.
* He had scratches and abrasions on his arms, which he chalked up to recent physical contact in a fight club he belonged to.
Details of the affidavit were published before an arrest was made. Woodward was eventually popped on Jan. 12 at his home.
“Finally,” Jeanne Bernstein wrote on Twitter. “My thoughts are: Revenge is empty. It will never bring back my son. My only hopes are that he will never have the opportunity to hurt anyone else again and that something meaningful can come from the senseless act of Blaze’s murder. Now Do Good for Blaze Bernstein.”
The arrest came thanks to what Rackauckas today called “old-fashioned detective work and surveillance as well as sophisticated examination of digital, physical and DNA evidence.” Investigators concluded that 185-pound Woodward overpowered 135-pound Bernstein and stabbed the victim multiple times.
Rackauckas says that Woodward allegedly gave a false explanation about the injuries on his hands and that he visited the crime scene after the murder. “He is further accused of cleaning up his car and acting in a manner which would avoid leaving his DNA to law enforcement,” reads a statement from his office, which notes the investigation continues and anyone with helpful information should contact OCDA Homicide Unit Supervising Investigator Kory Degraffenreid at 714.347.8492.
Today, the district attorney would not go into whether a murder weapon was found, nor would he confirm reports that blood from the victim was on the suspect’s sleeping bag. (“I can’t give more details.”) Rackauckas also refused to theorize at this time whether Bernstein’s killer was filled with “rage,” which could contribute to the likelihood of a hate crime.
But there are these factors, also from the sheriff’s affidavit:
* Bernstein had texted with friends over the summer that he planned to sexually pursue Woodward, who he believed was closeted.
* In the Hobby Lobby parking lot, Bernstein kissed Woodward on the lips. While the suspect recounted this, investigators say, his jaw and fists clenched and throughout the interview he seemed “nervous” and was “breathing heavy, talking fast and visibly shaking.”
* Woodward disclosed he pushed Bernstein away and wanted to call his pursuer a “faggot.”
* The number of times Bernstein was stabbed could indicate an act of rage.
The deceased had plans to declare a major in psychology with a minor in chemistry as part of his pre-med pursuits, and he had recently become managing editor of the University of Pennsylvania foodie magazine Penn Appetit.
“This is a senseless murder of a young man who possessed a combination of a high-caliber mind and the heart of a poet,” Rackauckas said today.
“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. As a community, we hope this case might serve as an opportunity for tolerance and understanding.”
The Blaze Bernstein Memorial Fund at the Jewish Community Foundation of Orange County has been established to raise money for organizations that were dear to the young man as well as charities that work to protect children from violence and that foster emotional health, such as The Orangewood Foundation. Find it here: https://blazebernstein.org/memorial-fund/.
Woodward is said to have harbored conservative political and cultural beliefs. On at least one website, he defended the Confederate flag as a symbol of Southern pride, not hate, and some online commenters have linked him to the alt-Right movement.
While still in high school, he filled out answers to an ASKfm page: Who would like to have had dinner with? (“Ronald Reagan”). What is something you have lost, that you wish you could get back?” (“Hope for humanity”). If you could learn a new skill today, what would it be? (“Waterboarding”). What is your view on human cloning? (“Just one of me in the world is already bad enough”). What two things would you want if stranded on a deserted island? (“The Bible and a Colt .45”).
Woodward, who was handcuffed as he was being escorted through the Orange County Jail parking lot on Friday, wore a black sweatshirt with the initials “KTP,” the K having been formed out of the peace sign. Below in smaller letters were the words “keep the peace.”
Matt Coker has been engaging, enraging and entertaining readers of newspapers, magazines and websites for decades. He spent the first 13 years of his career in journalism at daily newspapers before “graduating” to OC Weekly in 1995 as the paper’s first calendar editor. He went on to be managing editor, executive editor and is now senior staff writer.