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Slaying of Blaze Bernstein might be hate crime, parents say as new details emerge

Officials said DNA evidence at the crime scene in Borrego Park in Lake Forest linked Samuel Woodward to the death of Blaze Bernstein. (Jan. 16, 2018)

The parents of slain college student Blaze Bernstein said it's possible their son was the victim of a hate crime after new details emerged about his killing.

A law enforcement source told The Times that Bernstein was found with more than 20 stab wounds. The source spoke on the condition of anonymity because he or she was not authorized to discuss the case publicly.

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A former high school classmate, Samuel Woodward, 20, was arrested Friday on suspicion of murder after DNA evidence at the crime scene in Borrego Park and inside his car tied him to the slaying, officials said.

Authorities have not revealed a motive for the slaying. But the source said Woodward has claimed Bernstein kissed him.

Law enforcement sources said Tuesday that they were still trying to get a full picture of the slaying, including scrutinizing elements of Woodward’s story, as prosecutors determined what charges to bring. Charges are expected to be announced Wednesday.

“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,” Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper Bernstein wrote. “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.

At the University Synagogue in Irvine on Monday, Rabbi Arnold Rachlis led more than 500 people in a tribute to Bernstein.

Rachlis’ voice quivered with emotion as he launched the 90-minute service with these words: “We are gathered here today because this is a death that we never expected and still find hard to believe.”

Bernstein was eulogized as a personable, sensitive and innovative young man whose passion for gourmet cooking and writing intersected in his work as a managing editor of Penn Appetit, a student-run food magazine.

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 room. He was on winter break from the University of Pennsylvania and visiting his parents in Lake Forest when he disappeared.

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

Bernstein’s body was found Jan. 10 near the park, after rain runoff exposed parts 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 had dirty fingernails and scratches and abrasions on his hands, and could not provide the last name or address of a girlfriend he said he visited after dropping off Bernstein.

When asked about the abrasions by detectives, Woodward allegedly 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.

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Barnes said DNA results led to Woodward’s arrest. He had been under surveillance and was taken into custody after leaving his house about 1:15 p.m. Friday.

Barnes said Bernstein and Woodward had attended the same high school, identified in the warrant as the Orange County School of the Arts.

Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas on Friday called the killing a “very tragic case,” adding that “by all accounts, both of these families are good people whose lives have been turned upside down in a terrible way.”

“They are both in grieving situations,” Rackauckas said.

Bernstein's parents said Tuesday in their email that “now is the time to set aside fear, ignorance and judgment. It is time to love. Love each other. Be good. Do good and honor Blaze’s memory.”

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