Hate crime charges not ruled out in college student's slaying: Prosecutors

Prosecutors haven't ruled out hate crime charges in the fatal stabbing of University of Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said Wednesday.

Bernstein, 19, who was gay, was at home in Southern California for winter break when he went missing on Jan. 2. After an extensive search, his body was found on Jan. 9 in the brush surrounding Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch, the Orange County Sheriff's Department said.

"We are continuing to investigate, looking through all matters of the communication," he said at a news conference. "We have an obligation to file charges only if there's sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. A hate crime of special circumstance allegation requires that level of proof ... if and when we find it, we will amend the charges."

According to a now-sealed affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register, Woodward told investigators that Bernstein kissed him and that the kiss was unwanted.

Rackauckas later added in an interview with ABC News, "We would need evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that Sam Woodward did the killing because of a group that the victim might have belonged to. ... We'd have to show that the reason for the murder was substantially for the reason that he was gay," he said.

The Bernsteins said in a statement earlier this week, "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. 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."

Samuel Woodward -- Bernstein's former classmate at the Orange County School of the Arts -- was arrested on Jan. 12 and has been charged with murder.

Woodward, 20, allegedly picked up Bernstein from his home the night he went missing, the district attorney's office said.

Woodward -- who is 50 pounds heavier than Bernstein -- is accused of stabbing him to death and burying his body in the dirt in the perimeter of the park, the district attorney's office said.

The exact time and place of the murder is under investigation, prosecutors said, adding that a motive has not been determined.

Prosecutors accuse Woodward of visiting the crime scene days after the murder. They also say Woodward cleaned up the car he used to pick up the Ivy League student.

Prosecutors allege Woodward later gave authorities a "false explanation" about abrasions on his arms and dirt on his hands. According to a search warrant affidavit that was obtained by The Orange County Register and later sealed, Woodward allegedly told investigators the abrasions on him were from a "fight club," the affidavit said.

According to the affidavit, Woodward allegedly told investigators that that night at the park, Bernstein left the car and walked off.

In the affidavit, Woodward said he waited for an hour for Bernstein to return to the car and then tried to reach him on Snapchat. When that failed, he said he went to his girlfriend's house and then returned to the park a few hours later to look for Bernstein.

Police said, according to the affidavit, during their questioning, Woodward couldn't remember his girlfriend's last name or where she lived.

Rackauckas on Wednesday said the family is "very distraught."

"This was a treasured young man," he said.

The Ivy League student's mother, Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, told ABC station KABC-TV in Los Angeles on Wednesday. "He did a lot of things in the short time that he had."

"He was really a unique kid. I was gifted with 19 years with him. It was a gift from God," she said. "He taught me how to be a mother. He taught me how to love things that are different and unique and beautiful. And it's difficult sometimes to understand and rear a child that is smarter than you -- I mean, a lot smarter. He was like, in the 4th grade, I didn't enjoy playing chess with him anymore because I couldn't win."

"He was always two steps ahead of me in everything," Pepper Bernstein said. "He was a really good kid."

She added, "We just want to see that, even though my son can't be brought back, that there is a consequence. And that as a result of whatever happened, that it won't happen again."

Woodward, charged with murder, appeared in court Wednesday, where he was held without bail. Woodward's family was in court, watching him closely as they clutched each other. His arraignment was continued until Feb. 2.

A priest and friend of the Woodward family said Woodward was in Church "two Sunday's ago and took communion."

Woodward's attorney told ABC News that the family is deeply religious and that he asked for continuation because he hasn't seen one shred of evidence yet.

Woodward's parents did not comment outside of court.

If convicted, the maximum sentence is 26 years to life in state prison.
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