Gildeon Bernstein/OCPD

Police: Murder Of California Teen Blaze Bernstein May Have Been Gay-Bashing

"We were proud of everything he did and who he was," said Bernstein's parents. "He had nothing to hide."

A suspect has been arrested in conjunction with the murder of Blaze Bernstein, a pre-med student whose body was found last week in Southern California.

Sam Woodward, a former high-school classmate of Bernstein’s, was taken into custody Friday on suspicion of homicide. Affidavits taken by police suggest Woodward, 20, may have killed Bernstein because he was afraid of a romantic advance.

A sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, Bernstein was on winter break when he disappeared on January 2. His body was found seven days later in a shallow grave in Borrego Park with more than 20 stab wounds in it.

After obtaining a search warrant, investigators examined Bernstein’s phone and social media and uncovered text conversations from June, in which the 19-year-old told two female friends about encounters with Woodward.

In one, he wrote that Woodward was about to “hit on me” and “made me promise not to tell anyone… but I have texted every one, uh oh.” In other messages he told them he wanted to have sex with Woodward, and said another referred to Woodward as “closeted… and he was telling the truth for once.”

Questioned later, Woodward admitted he picked Bernstein up the evening he went missing to “catch up.” The two parked outside a Hobby Lobby in Lake Forest where, according to Woodward, Bernstein kissed him on the mouth.

He told authorities he pushed Bernstein away, claiming Bernstein then got out of the car and entered the park of his own volition. (According to the Orange County Register, Woodward clenched his jaw and his fists when he recounted the kiss, saying he wanted to call Bernstein a “faggot.”)

Woodward claimed he waited for Bernstein for an hour before driving to meet a girlfriend—whose name or address he couldn’t remember. He also said he returned to the park hours later to look for Bernstein, but to no avail.

Police observed scratches on Woodward’s hands and dirt under his nails, but he attributed them to an underground “fight club” he was part of. Woodward was arrested Friday after blood found on a sleeping bag in his possession was shown to belong to Bernstein.

According to the Register, Woodward was known at Santa Ana’s Orange County School of the Arts for his right-wing beliefs: His social media was filled with postings about his love of guns, the Bible, waterboarding, and the Confederate flag.

On Wednesday, prosecutors charged him with one felony count of murder, with a sentence enhancement for using a knife. They say they are still assembling their case, but are not ruling out the possibly the attack was an anti-LGBT hate crime. If special-circumstances charges are added, it would make Woodward eligible for life in prison without the hope for parole.

“Our son was a beautiful, gentle soul who we loved more than anything,” Jeanne and Gideon Bernstein told the Register. We were proud of everything he did and who he was. He had nothing to hide.

The couple added they stood in solidarity with the LGBT community: “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.”

Dan Avery is a writer-editor who focuses on culture, breaking news and LGBT rights. His work has appeared in Newsweek, The New York Times, Time Out New York, The Advocate and elsewhere.