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Former classmate charged with murder in death of Blaze Bernstein

Orange County prosecutors charged a former schoolmate of Ivy League college student Blaze Bernstein with murder on Wednesday.

Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 20, was arrested Friday after DNA evidence at the crime scene in Borrego Park and inside his car tied him to the slaying, authorities said.

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Woodward was charged Wednesday morning with a felony count of murder and a sentencing enhancement of personal use of a knife, said Orange County district attorney's spokeswoman Michelle Van Der Linden. If convicted, he could face 26 years to life in prison, she said.

Woodward appeared in court for arraignment later in the day, but that procedure was postponed until Feb. 2 and no plea was entered. In the meantime he'll remain in jail without bail.

Prosecutors say that after an interaction on Snapchat, Woodward picked up Bernstein at his parents' house in Lake Forest and stabbed him at least 20 times, killing him.

Woodward had "abrasions, scratches and dirt on his hands," cleaned the car that he used the night he picked up Bernstein and visited the crime scene "days after the murder," Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said at a news conference Wednesday.

Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announces murder charges against Samuel Woodward in the death Blaze Bernstein. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

"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.

Bernstein, 19, was reported missing Jan. 3 by his family, who became concerned after he didn't show up for a dental appointment and they found his wallet and glasses in his bedroom. He was on winter break from the University of Pennsylvania, visiting his parents in Lake Forest, when he disappeared.

Detectives used Bernstein's Snapchat account to identify Woodward, who had picked Bernstein up the night before, Orange County Undersheriff Don Barnes said Friday.

Bernstein's body was found partially buried Jan. 10 near the park, after rain runoff exposed part of the remains.

Barnes said investigators found inconsistencies in what Woodward told authorities.

A search warrant affidavit, obtained by the Orange County Register, said that Woodward could not provide the last name or address of a girlfriend he said he had visited after dropping off Bernstein.

When asked about the abrasions by detectives, Woodward said that they were from a "fight club" he participated in and that his fingernails were dirty because he fell into a "dirt puddle" during sparring, the report showed.

Since Bernstein's parents reported him missing to the Orange County Sheriff's Department on Jan. 3, officials dedicated a team of 25 search-and-rescue deputies, police K-9s, multiple helicopter expeditions and drones to locating Bernstein, whose body was found Jan. 9 in a shallow grave at Borrego Park in Lake Forest.

Woodward had been under surveillance and was taken into custody after leaving his house about 1:15 p.m. Friday.

"This case was solved through old-fashioned detective work and surveillance as well as sophisticated examination of digital, physical and DNA evidence," Rackauckas said.

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Bernstein and Woodward knew each other in high school at the Orange County School of the Arts, but there is no indication they were friends, Rackauckas said. He drew a contrast in their physical differences: Woodward is 6-foot-2 and weighs 185 pounds, while Bernstein stood 5-foot-8 and weighed 135 pounds.

On Tuesday, Bernstein's family said it's possible their son was the victim of a hate crime.

Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper Bernstein wrote in an email to The Times that "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."

They noted the investigation was continuing. "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 [a] hate crime," they wrote.

The motive is still under investigation, and prosecutors are looking for evidence about whether this may have been a hate crime, Rackauckas said.

He refused to talk about whether Woodward confessed to the killing to authorities. He said substantial surveillance indicated that Woodward "had a car he had been using" and "he was cleaning it."

UPDATES:

3 p.m.: This article was updated with details on the arraignment.

11:05 a.m.: This article was updated with more information from Rackauckas' news conference.

10:10 a.m.: This article was updated with information from Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas.

This article was originally published at 8:55 a.m.

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