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Newport Beach man charged with murder in stabbing death of former classmate Blaze Bernstein

SANTA ANA CA JANUARY 17, 2018 -- Samuel Lincoln Woodward speaks with his attorney during his arraig
Samuel Woodward of Newport Beach speaks with his attorney, Edward Munoz, during a court hearing Wednesday. Woodward is charged with murder in the death of Blaze Bernstein.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

A 20-year-old Newport Beach man was charged Wednesday with murder in the stabbing death of former high school classmate Blaze Bernstein.

Samuel Lincoln Woodward also faces a possible sentencing enhancement on allegations of personal use of a knife, according to the Orange County district attorney’s office. If convicted, he could face a maximum sentence of 26 years to life in state prison.

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

Bernstein’s partially buried body was found Jan. 9 at Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch. A recent rainstorm had washed away some of the dirt covering the remains.

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A law enforcement source told the Los Angeles Times this week that Bernstein was stabbed more than 20 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,” District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said during a news conference Wednesday morning.

Woodward, whose occupation is listed in court records as “nerf games,” is being held in Orange County Jail without bail. On Wednesday afternoon, he stood in a cage in Orange County Superior Court in Santa Ana wearing an orange jumpsuit and spoke with his attorney, Edward Munoz.

Judge Sheila Hanson agreed to Munoz’s request to delay Woodward’s arraignment until Feb. 2. Munoz declined to comment on the reason for the request.

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Woodward’s parents, Blake and Michele, sat in the second row of the courtroom with Wilbur Davis, a retired priest whom they’ve known for 10 years through Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Newport Beach. They recited the Lord’s Prayer before the court proceeding began.

Davis described the family as “devout” in their Catholic faith. Woodward’s parents attend Mass nearly every day, he said.

“We are all in shock,” Davis said. “Both sides are in pain. Both sides are victims,” he added, alluding to the Woodward and Bernstein families.

Davis said he last saw Woodward at church on Jan. 7, when he expressed excitement about taking Communion. The bread and wine offered during the ceremony represent the body, blood, soul and divinity of Christ.

Woodward was named for the prophet Samuel, a leader of ancient Israel whose story is highlighted in the Old Testament, Davis said.

During the morning news conference, Rackauckas said “old-fashioned detective work” and DNA evidence played a role in Woodward’s arrest.

Authorities allege that Woodward picked up Bernstein from his parents’ house around 11 p.m. Jan. 2 after an interaction on Snapchat and drove him to the parking lot of a shopping center on Portola Parkway in Foothill Ranch. Later that night, Woodward drove Bernstein to Borrego Park, authorities say.

The exact time and location of Bernstein’s death are not clear, Rackauckas said.

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Detectives linked Woodward to the slaying through DNA evidence at Borrego Park and inside his car, authorities said.

Authorities said they identified “inconsistencies” in Woodward’s story and watched him for several days before he was arrested Friday while leaving his house.

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

Investigators also noticed scratches on Woodward’s arms and dirt under his fingernails. When authorities asked, Woodward said the abrasions were from a fight club he participated in and that his nails were dirty because he fell into a “dirt puddle” during sparring, according to the report.

Authorities have not revealed a motive for the slaying, but a law enforcement source told The Times that Woodward claimed Bernstein kissed him.

Rackauckas said the case is still being investigated and that his office hasn’t ruled out the possibility that the killing was a hate crime.

“Our son was a beautiful, gentle soul who we loved more than anything,” Bernstein’s parents, Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper, wrote in a statement Monday. “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.

“There is still much discovery to be done, and 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 hate crime,” they wrote.

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Woodward and Bernstein attended Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, though it is unclear whether they were friends at the time. Woodward attended Corona del Mar High School during his junior and senior years. He graduated in 2016, according to a Newport-Mesa Unified School District official.

Woodward attended college but did not graduate, according to Munoz.

Los Angeles Times staff writer Anh Do contributed to this report.

hannah.fry@latimes.com

Twitter: @HannahFryTCN


UPDATES:

4:40 p.m.: This article was updated with details from Woodward’s court appearance.

This article was originally published at 10:50 a.m.


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