Suspect pleads not guilty in murder of college student Blaze Bernstein
SANTA ANA (FOX 11 / CNS) - A 20-year-old Newport Beach man accused of killing a gay former classmate in a Lake Forest park has pleaded not guilty to a murder charge.
Samuel Woodward, who's accused of fatally stabbing Blaze Bernstein in early January, is set to return to court March 2 for a pretrial hearing. His bail has been set at $5 million.
A 20-year-old Newport Beach man was charged Wednesday with the stabbing death of a University of Pennsylvania student from Lake Forest who was missing for a week before his body was found in a shallow grave at Borrego Park.
Samuel Lincoln Woodward is accused of killing 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, who was last seen by Woodward late the night of Jan. 2 and was found dead one week later.
Woodward appeared in court briefly Wednesday afternoon, but his arraignment on the murder charge was postponed until Feb. 2. He was ordered to remain jailed without bail.
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The murder charge against him includes a sentencing enhancement allegation that he used a knife in the killing.
At a Wednesday morning news conference, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas declined to provide too many details of the case. But he said the investigation is continuing, and if warranted, the murder charge could be amended to include a special circumstance allegation that would open Woodward to a possible death sentence.
Woodward and Bernstein were classmates at the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana and reconnected through the social media platform Snapchat.
According to Rackauckas, Woodward picked up Bernstein from his parents' Lake Forest home about 11 p.m. Jan. 2, and drove him to a shopping center on Portola Parkway in Foothill Ranch. Later, the two went to Borrego Park in Lake Forest, he said. "The exact time and place of the murder is still under investigation," Rackauckas said.
The county's top prosecutor said Woodward is 6-foot-2 and weighed 185 pounds and Bernstein was 5-foot-8 and weighed 135 pounds. After stabbing Bernstein multiple times, Woodward then buried the body in a dirt perimeter of the park, Rackauckas alleged.
Bernstein's parents called authorities Jan. 3 to report their son missing, and his body was found Jan. 9.
Rackauckas declined to discuss a possible motive for the killing. A search warrant affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register suggested that Bernstein may have tried to kiss Woodward, who responded by killing him in an act of rage.
The district attorney declined to comment on the affidavit, which has since been sealed by a judge, but he did not rule out the possibility that the killing could eventually be classified as a hate crime.
"We're still looking at all the evidence," Rackauckas said. "We have a substantial amount of work to do on that, and it's going to take a little bit of time. Some of that is in the form of communications between the defendant ... and other people or the suspect and other people, so there might
be a substantial amount of communication.
"So we have to look at all of that before we can make a decision like that," he said. "The question of a hate crime is one question that we have about the possibility of special circumstances, and so we're looking to see whether or not that might be supported."
Bernstein's parents -- Gideon and Jeanne -- issued a statement Tuesday noting the possibility the killing may have been a hate crime.
"Our son was a beautiful, gentle soul who we loved more than anything," the Bernsteins said. "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."
Following the Wednesday afternoon court appearance, Woodward's attorney, Ed Munoz, told reporters the killing was "a tragedy."
"My heart goes out to that family," he said. "But the Woodward family is also suffering."
Rackauckas said Woodward had cuts on his arms and dirt on his hands when he was interviewed by investigators, and he lied about how he got the wounds. He said surveillance video also showed Woodward trying to clean the car he was using when he picked up Bernstein. While he was under surveillance, Woodward was also seen returning to the scene of the killing days after the
crime, although Rackauckas declined to say exactly when that occurred.
Without elaborating, he said investigators have DNA tying Woodward to the crime. The Orange County Register reported earlier that the evidence was Bernstein's blood on a sleeping bag Woodward had in his possession. The Register also reported that Bernstein had been stabbed more than 20 times.
Woodward was arrested Friday in connection with the death of the Bernstein, who had eyes on becoming a pre-med student.
Woodward's mother, Michele, made her first public statement about the case Tuesday, asking for privacy. "I would like it very much if everyone would respect our privacy and the privacy of the Bernstein family," she told news media outlets outside her home. "This is a time of great suffering and we would ask that you would respect that suffering. Thank you very much."
Sheriff's officials said earlier that Woodward had driven Bernstein to the park the night of Jan. 2. According to the search warrant affidavit obtained by the Register, he told investigators that Bernstein wandered into the park and disappeared. Woodward said he eventually left the park at 1 a.m., telling investigators he drove to a girlfriend's house in Tustin, but returned about 3:40 a.m. when Bernstein still had not surfaced, according to the affidavit.
In subsequent interviews, however, Woodward was unable to remember the girlfriend's name or address, according to the affidavit. Woodward also had scratches and abrasions on his hands, which he attributed to a "fight club" in which he was involved, and dirt under his fingernails that he said was the result of falling into a mud puddle.
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