Blaze Bernstein never formally came out to his parents as gay. But they had an idea. When his mother, Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, tried to broach the subject, Blaze brushed her off and preferred to remain quiet.
It was understandable, the parents said. He was still trying to explore his identity and his world as a college sophomore at University of Pennsylvania. He didn’t want to be viewed in just one way, they said. He was still growing up.
“Well, I will tell you this. I do have a lot of gay friends,” Blaze told his mother at the beginning of this school year.
“That’s great, Blaze. I just want you to know that I love you,” she told him. “I think it’s great and I want you to bring someone you love home and stay in our house and have holiday dinners with them.”
“Great, maybe I will,” he said.
That was the last time they talked about it.
The 19-year-old, home on winter break from the college, disappeared Jan. 2. He was found eight days later in a shallow grave in Orange County’s Borrego Park. He had been stabbed at least 20 times.
The Orange County district attorney’s office has charged Samuel Woodward, 20, with Blaze Bernstein’s slaying, and prosecutors are trying to determine whether he was the victim of a hate crime.
Both attended the elite Orange County School of the Arts, but the classmates weren’t particularly close. The Bernsteins have said they did not know Woodward.
According to officials, Blaze Bernstein reached out to Woodward on Snapchat. On Jan. 2, Woodward drove over and picked him up.
Woodward told detectives that Bernstein had kissed him, according to a law enforcement source who was not authorized to discuss the case publicly and requested anonymity. Woodward, the source said, also told investigators he had wanted to call Bernstein a “faggot.”
Jeanne Pepper Bernstein had long been worried about her son becoming a target.
“I’m concerned about the fact that he is Jewish. I’m concerned with the fact that he is gay or the fact that he is small,” she said. “I was concerned for his safety always. I was concerned sending him out into the big world. But at some point you have to let go and they leave the nest and fly. I couldn’t protect him from everything.”
Wednesday afternoon, the Bernsteins tried to maintain their composure during a marathon of interviews at a Costa Mesa business club.
They refrained from commenting on what they know about the criminal case. Instead, they said they wanted to get word out about what they see as their son’s legacy. They stressed that they wanted to focus on the positive, not the negative.
That’s why, they said, they have decided not to attend any of the criminal court proceedings unless they are really needed.
“It’s a waste of energy,” Jeanne Pepper Bernstein said.
Instead, she said, she prefers to focus on what people can do in her son’s honor.
The family set up a memorial fund at the Jewish Community Foundation of Orange County, which will provide support to organizations that Blaze Bernstein would have liked to support, such as the Orangewood Foundation.
“It keeps us going. It makes us feel like we’re alive and there is a future. We want to harness that and to do something to help other families, other children and young adults,” Gideon Bernstein said. “We want to make something new and intriguing and impactful out of this situation.”
Jeanne Pepper Bernstein said she’s heartened by all the support the family has received from the public. She hopes that it will continue.
Desperate to find Blaze Bernstein, his mother learned her son had left the house by “hacking into his computer and getting into his social media account,” she said.
“Most people our age don’t understand how much our children are using social media for communicating,” Gideon Bernstein said.
They hope to launch a project soon that would help make the internet safer. But they said they couldn’t get into much detail for now.
“It’s the right time. There is so much negativity in this world. There is so much dissention, so much polarity in this society,” Jeanne Pepper Bernstein said. “This is something that brings us together. We want to live in a safer place. We all want to receive kindness.”
The couple buried their son three days ago. But, in a way, his mother said she can pretend Blaze Bernstein is still alive.
“Somewhere … out there,” she said.
But that will most likely change in a few weeks, when the couple travels to their son’s apartment near the University of Pennsylvania to pack up his belongings, particularly all the new kitchenware Blaze Bernstein, an avid cook, excitedly ordered over the holidays.
“It’ll be almost like reverse of giving birth when you are excited and so happy that this new life is forming,” she said. “This will be the opposite. I know this will be the end of his life. That’s it…. It’s all over.”
They hope it’ll help them find some sort of closure.
Gideon Bernstein said he used to think he was the “luckiest person in the world.” This experience has taught him humility, he said. The couple said the only way to continue is to focus on the future.
“We can’t worry about things that cannot be fixed,” Jeanne Pepper Bernstein said. “I can’t bring my son back. I can’t fix him and inject him back into his life.… So the next best thing is to bring goodness to the world that he would have brought if he could.”
She recalls a letter she wrote to him when he graduated from high school, describing her dream for him.