Suspect charged in murder of UPenn student

Suspect charged in murder of UPenn student

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This story was updated to include a comment from the district attorney and bail information

A 20-year-old man was charged Wednesday with the murder of University of Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein.

Samuel Lincoln Woodward was charged with one felony count of murder with a sentence enhancement for using a personal knife, according to Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.

Authorities have yet to release a motive and the investigation is ongoing.

“Our priority on this brutal murder of a 19-year-old Ivy League student is to make sure Woodward is brought to justice,” Rackauckas said at a press conference.

Bernstein, 19, was found dead last week in brush surrounding a neighborhood park in the Foothill Ranch area of Lake Forest, Calif., according to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.

The missing UPenn student was reported missing to the Sheriff’s Department Jan. 3, and some 25 members of the department’s search-and-rescue team scoured the park and nearby wilderness area for days afterward.

Bernstein, who was stabbed numerous times, was found Jan. 9 around 2 p.m., according to authorities.

His father, Gideon Bernstein, posted a statement on Facebook Jan. 10.

“Blaze was brilliant, colorful and charismatic; who shined a 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.

“We want to thank all of you who so generously gave your hearts, time and energy to help us in the search for Blaze over this past week. As the investigation moves from search and rescue to homicide investigation, we ask for your continued support in providing tips and information to the OC Sheriff’s Department.”

Woodward was arrested Jan. 12 in connection to the homicide. Investigators are still working to determine if the murder was a hate crime. 

Rackaukas stated in a report by ABC News that in order to prove a hate crime, authorities would need to prove beyond reasonable doubt that the murder was because Bernstein was gay.

According to a report by the Orange County Register, an affidavit suggests Bernstein may have been looking to pursue Woodward sexually.

Bernstein allegedly posted on social-media accounts about his connection to Woodward and the affidavit lists text conversations between the two.

Based on the affidavit, Bernstein claimed in a written conversation that Woodward “hit on” him. It was also written in the conversation that “he made me promise not to tell anyone … but I have texted everyone, uh oh.”

Additional information in the affidavit states Bernstein kissed Woodward on the lips as they sat in the latter’s car. Woodward told police he pushed Bernstein away.

Woodward and Bernstein were former classmates, having both attended Orange County School of the Arts.

The district attorney confirmed that Woodward had scratches on his hands and dirt under his nails during initial questioning.

Woodward reportedly told investigators that he drove Bernstein to the parking lot of a Hobby Lobby in Lake Forest. He added that Bernstein said they were going to meet with another friend from high school. They arrived at the Borrego Park parking area shortly before midnight Jan. 2. Woodward said Bernstein exited the vehicle and walked to the park by himself.

After about an hour, Woodward said he tried contacting Bernstein on Snapchat. He then allegedly left around 1 a.m. and drove to his girlfriend’s house in Tustin before returning to the park around 3:40 a.m. According to the affidavit, Woodward said during the interview that he did not know his girlfriend’s last name or where she lived.

Woodward was under surveillance and authorities said he was seen revisiting the site where the body was found days after the murder. According to Rackauckas, the suspect was also seen cleaning out the car he used to pick up Bernstein Jan. 2.

Police traced digital and physical DNA back to Woodward. The time and place of the murder is still under investigation.

Authorities said Woodward could face 26 years to life in prison if convicted. Woodward was being held at the Orange County ail in lieu of $2 million bail until the judge waived his ability to get out on bail, according to reports. 

Woodward is due in court Feb. 2.

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