SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) – A former high school classmate of a University of Pennsylvania student found stabbed and buried in a California park was charged Wednesday with murder and investigators were looking for evidence of a hate crime, a prosecutor said.
Samuel Woodward, 20, killed 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein with a knife, the complaint said, while the college sophomore was visiting his parents on winter break.
Orange County prosecutors alleged that Woodward used a deadly weapon in the killing – a so-called enhancement that could allow them to seek more prison time. If convicted, Woodward could face as much as 26 years to life in prison.
Authorities said Woodward picked up Bernstein at his parents’ home in Lake Forest around 11 p.m. on Jan. 2 and took him to a neighborhood park. His body was found in a shallow grave there a week later.
Prosecutors were still trying to determine a motive.
“We’re continuing to search for evidence that might support special-circumstances allegations,” District Attorney Tony Rackauckus said at a news conference.
Asked specifically about hate crime evidence, Rackauckus said, “We’re looking for that evidence and if and when we find it we will amend the charges and file that.”
Bernstein’s parents have said the killing may have been a hate crime against their son.
“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,” Bernstein’s family said in a statement earlier this week.
Woodward told investigators he became angry after Bernstein kissed him that night, according to a court filing obtained by the Orange County Register.
Woodward appeared in court for arraignment but it was postponed to Feb. 2 and no plea was entered. In the meantime he’ll remain jailed without bail.
His parents were in the audience holding hands with a Catholic priest who is a friend of the family.
“This is a tragedy,” defense attorney Edward Munoz said later to reporters.
He said his heart goes out to Bernstein family and that the Woodward family is in shock.
“This young man I’m representing was an Eagle Scout and now he’s facing murder,” Munoz said.
The district attorney said the two young men had both attended the Orange County School of the Arts but he did not know if they were friends at the time.
Woodward communicated with Bernstein via Snapchat on Jan. 2 and then picked him up in a vehicle, Rackauckus said.
Bernstein’s parents reported him missing the following day. Authorities searched for nearly a week with help from drone pilots. His body was found after rains partially exposed it.
The time and place of the killing remained under investigation, even though the body was found at the park, the district attorney said.
Investigators said Woodward had abrasions, scratches and dirt on his hands and was seen during surveillance cleaning the vehicle, Rackauckus said.
The district attorney also said Bernstein’s DNA was found on property held by Woodward but he would not provide any other details.
Bernstein had been studying psychology and was recently chosen to edit a campus culinary magazine. Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil and his funeral.
“This is a senseless murder of a young man who possessed a combination of a high-caliber mind and the heart of a poet,” Rackauckus said.
AP reporter John Antczak contributed to this report from Los Angeles.