Orange County prosecutors officially charged a Newport Beach, California, man with murder on Wed. morning, in connection with the death of Ivy League college student, Blaze Bernstein.
The Los Angeles Times reports that 20-year-old Samuel Woodward was charged with one felony count of murder, along with a sentencing enhancement (aggravating factors) of using a knife to commit the crime. A sentencing enhancement will give the judge the right to increase the defendant’s sentencing, should he be proven guilty. Orange County district attorney’s spokeswoman, Michelle Van Der Linden, indicated that Woodward faces anywhere from 26 years to life behind bars.
Initially, an arrest affidavit read that Woodward met up with 19-year-old Bernstein at the Foothills Ranch Hobby Lobby parking lot on Jan. 2. Prosecutors allege that based on Snapchat conversations, it’s believed that Woodward picked Blaze up from his parent’s Lake Forest home and later that night, stabbed the victim 20 times before burying his body in a shallow grave near Borrego Park. It’s unclear if the pair actually met in the parking lot earlier that day, as Woodward reportedly indicated.
“This is a senseless murder of a young man who possessed a combination of a high-caliber mind and the heart of a poet,” Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said on Weds.
Samuel Woodward, the suspect in the murder of UPenn student Blaze Bernstein reportedly posted violent material on social media. They both attended the Orange County School of the Arts. Police said to uncovered substaintial DNA evidence https://t.co/bwyPjgNpDu pic.twitter.com/BToL6sfVqt
— Adam Milstein (@AdamMilstein) January 14, 2018
According to ABC News, prosecutors said during a press conference on Weds. that they still have not ruled out the murder as a hate crime. Blaze was openly gay, something his parents said they were aware of and fully supported. Previous social media posts by Woodward suggested he held conservative views.
“We are continuing to investigate, looking through all matters of the communication,” Rackauckas continued. “We have an obligation to file charges only if there’s sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. A hate crime of special circumstance allegation requires that level of proof … if and when we find it, we will amend the charges.”
“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.”
As CrimeOnline previously reported, Blaze, a University of Pennsylvania student, was home for the holidays when he was killed. Authorities said Blaze may have been trying to sexually pursue Woodward, a friend he attended high school with.
Detectived said they uncovered social medias messages sent by Blaze in June, to two of his female friends that indicated Woodward “hit on him” and made him promise to keep it a secret.
In one message, Blaze wrote,”he made me promise not to tell anyone … but I have texted every one, uh oh.”
On Jan. 2, Woodward reportedly met Blaze in the parking lot at the Foothills Chase Hobby Lobby, where Blaze allegedly kissed him on the lips as they sat in Woodward’s car. The suspect told police he pushed Blaze away. Woodward also “clenched up” his fists and jaws and said he “he wanted to tell Blaze to get off of him,” according to the affidavit.
During initial questioning, police noticed Woodward had scratches on his hands and dirt under his nails, which he explained away by saying he was in a “fight club.” After questioning, authorities kept Woodward under surveillance for two days while they tested DNA evidence.
Per court documents, Woodward was known in high school to have conservative views. He reportedly posted on social media about his love of the Bible and guns, while defending the Confederate Flag. He’s currently behind bars on suspicion of involvement in Blaze’s death, though no formal charges have been made yet. He’s expected to appear for an arraignment this week.
Blaze’s lifeless body was found on Jan. 9, just outside Borrego park, the last place Woodward claimed he saw him. Authorities reported he was found near shrubbery in a shallow grave.
The story is still developing. Check back with CrimeOnline as additional details become available.
[Feature Photo: Blaze Bernstein/Blaze Bernstein Memorial Fund]