Blaze Bernstein, a college student from The University of Pennsylvania, was reported missing after he walked into a California park and didn’t come back out. The circumstances of his disappearance were mysterious. Tragically, Bernstein’s body has now been recovered in brush, and the death of the promising young man interested in pre-med is being investigated as a homicide.
Authorties have announced the arrest of Samuel Woodward, Bernstein’s friend from high school, in the murder. They have not yet specified a motive. Bernstein was stabbed 20 times in an alleged “act of rage,” authorities have now revealed.
However, Pro Publica now alleges that Woodward is “an avowed neo-Nazi and a member of one of the most notorious extremist groups in the country.” The group is called the Atomwaffen, and Pro Publica alleges that Woodward trained with it, saying that authorities are considering whether the death of the Jewish and gay Bernstein might have been a hate crime.
“Bernstein may have been planning to sexually pursue Woodward,” the Orange County Register reported.
Bernstein, 19, had returned to Foothill Ranch, California for winter break from his studies. Bernstein disappeared at the Whiting Ranch Wilderness Area, and major searches were launched to find him. Authorities initially announced that they had discontinued the search of the park, after turning up no leads on Blaze.
It was as if the teenager vanished into thin air, and, for days, drone and other searches turned up nothing. Family and friends launched a major public outreach effort to find him. Sadly, they did not get the ending they were hoping for. A search warrant affidavit in the case presented new details about the friend who reportedly last saw Bernstein walk into the woods; Woodward allegedly had abrasions on his hands, according to The Orange County Register.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. His Family Doesn’t Know Why Bernstein, Whom They Called ‘Brilliant, Colorful & Charismatic,’ Went Into the Wilderness Area
Blaze Bernstein’s “body was found Tuesday afternoon (January 9) in brush surrounding a neighborhood park in the Foothill Ranch area of the city of Lake Forest,” reported ABC 6. According to the news station, authorities have not released a cause of death or many other details, but they are investigating the case as a homicide. In a news conference on January 12, sheriff’s officials announced that the investigative trail and inconsistent statements led them to Woodward.
“We have just learned that the OC Sheriff’s Dept and Coroner’s office has confirmed our family’s worst fears and have positively identified our son Blaze’s body,” Blaze’s father, Gideon Bernstein, said in a family statement posted on Facebook. “Blaze was brilliant, colorful, and charismatic; who shined light on all of the lives of the people and communities he touched. Our family is devastated by the news. We – like so many of you around the world – love Blaze and wanted nothing more than his safe return.”
Friends and family members have said they don’t have a clue why Bernstein wanted to go into Whiting Ranch Wilderness Area and Borrego Park in the first place, but he never came back out. “Our son, Blaze Bernstein, has been missing since the late evening of Tuesday January 2nd, 2018. He was last seen at Borrego Park near our home in Foothill Ranch, CA (Lake Forest),” his father wrote previously on Facebook.
Blaze had asked Woodward to take him to the wilderness area around 11 p.m. Woodward stayed in nearby Borrego Park, according to CBS Los Angeles.
“Bernstein’s parents say the friend told them he didn’t know why Bernstein wanted to go there. They didn’t even know he had gone out until the next day when they couldn’t find him,” CBS LA reported. The park is located in Orange County. However, the Orange County Register reported that Blaze and his friend had gone there so Blaze could “meet a third person. The person’s identity and the reason for the meeting wasn’t known.” It’s not clear whether that third person ever existed.
A special bulletin from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, published before the teenager’s body was discovered, called Blaze a missing person and said, “Blaze Bernstein was last seen at approximately 11 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 2, entering Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch. Bernstein is in Orange County on winter break from the University of Pennsylvania. Witnesses said he met up with a friend and the two drove to Borrego Park, where the teen exited the vehicle and entered the park. The 19-year-old has not been seen or heard from since.”
Gideon Bernstein said after his son’s body was found, “We want to thank all of you who so generously gave of your hearts, time, and energy to help us in the search for Blaze over this past week. As this investigation moves from search and rescue to a homicide investigation, we ask for your continued support in providing tips and information to the OC Sheriff’s Dept. Our family sends you all of our endless love and thanks for what you have done. As we grieve, we are making plans for services for Blaze, but have nothing yet to announce.”
People with information are urged to call the Orange County Sheriff’s Department at 714-647-7000 or submit anonymous tips to Crime Stoppers at 855-TIP-OCCS.
Gideon Bernstein added that, “should you wish to continue to honor Blaze and his memory as we shall endlessly do, we ask that you make a contribution to the Blaze Bernstein Memorial Fund at the Jewish Community Foundation Orange County (http://www.jcfoc.org). This money will be given to the Orangewood Foundation and other organizations that help children and families in needs. We are incredibly appreciative of all the love, help and support we have received from family, friends, our community and from those around the country and throughout the world. We are thankful to law enforcement for their hard work and effort.”
2. Bernstein Planned to Study Pre-Med at the University of Pennsylvania & Edited a Food Magazine
Blaze Bernstein had everything to look forward to; he was excelling in extra-curricular activities at his university and about to return there for spring semester.
According to The Los Angeles Times, Bernstein was a pre-med student at the University of Pennsylvania. The Orange County Register says he was a sophomore “planning to declare a major in psychology with a minor in chemistry” to pursue pre-med.
His father told the Orange County newspaper that Blaze “recently became managing editor of the foodie magazine at the University of Pennsylvania, called Penn Appetit” and was very excited about the project.
Blaze Bernstein was described as 5 foot 8 inches tall and 130 pounds. He had light brown hair and blue eyes, and he was last seen wearing pants, white Adidas laced tennis shoes, and a charcoal grey long-sleeved top, according to a Facebook page organized to find him.
Blaze’s father wrote on January 7 on that Facebook page, “This is Blaze’s family. We wanted to update you on the ongoing search for Blaze. We are now on the 5th night of Blaze’s disappearance. He was supposed to fly out tomorrow morning back to UPENN in Philadelphia. We know Blaze would have loved to be on that flight back to school.”
3. Bernstein’s Friend Allegedly Had Dirt Under His Fingernails & Acted Nervous During an Interview With Authorities
Family members never thought Bernstein intended to disappear because he left behind key belongings at his parents’ home. “There are so many unknowns to deal with,” family friend Annee Della Donna, told The Los Angeles Times. “We’re talking about a brilliant kid who goes to a small park five minutes from home, then disappears.”
The belongings left behind included “his keys, wallet, credit cards and eyeglasses,” reported The Los Angeles Times, which added that his father told The Times the parents didn’t “even hear him leave.”
“He is considered a missing person,” his father wrote on Facebook before his son’s body was found. “We believe that he may just be hiding / staying somewhere close by. He was with a high school friend prior to his disappearance and we believe he was planning to come back home that night since he left his wallet and glasses at home. There is no clear motive and he was in good spirits that evening.”
According to The Orange County Register, the “high-school classmate who reportedly was the last known person to see him alive appeared nervous when interviewed by detectives.” The Register obtained a search warrant affidavit in the case. It alleges that the friend, “who attended Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana with Bernstein, told detectives that he spoke with him on SnapChat that night. He agreed to pick up Bernstein and they drove to the parking lot of a Hobby Lobby in Lake Forest to ‘hang out’ and ‘catch up.’”
The warrant said the friend, Woodward, claimed that Bernstein was going to meet with another friend and walked into the park alone, and the friend allegedly said he drove to his girlfriend’s house but couldn’t provide her name.
The friend allegedly had “dirt under the fingernails,” which he blamed on falling into a dirt puddle and had scratches and abrasions on his hands that he attributed to being in a “fight club,” according to The Orange County Register. He allegedly seemed nervous, “breathing heavy, talking fast and visibly shaking,” The Register reported.
4. The Family Used Private Drone Searches in a Quest to Find Blaze
Gideon Bernstein has posted lengthy updates on the Facebook page organized to find his son. One described the search efforts that were underway before Blaze was found. The family told The Orange County Register that Blaze has a zero tolerance for drugs or alcohol.
“We still maintain hope that he is out there and that he may be found or re-surface,” the father wrote, saying of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department: “The OCSD is diligently working to help us find him. Today they sent out a large reserve search and rescue unit to comb through Whiting Ranch next to Borrego Park for the second time. They also had a canine sweep which did not come up with anything. In addition the helicopters continued to search in the more dense areas. We are thankful for all of the hard work from the professionals and volunteers.”
Gideon Bernstein added: “We still ask ourselves where is Blaze? If he were here he would have been cooking up a fine dinner with his family and celebrating his nephews birthday. He also was supposed to take his brother out shopping for a new suit today. We know he wouldnt want to miss those events.”
“What’s next?” he continued. “Many folks were asking to help do a search, but frankly the OCSD has done many ground searches through the local area, in addition to helicopters and dogs. We therefore have shifted to working on a private drone search with a team of professional drone operators. We are trying to hit areas that are less accessible by car or people to maximize the use of the drones. Today they covered part of the 133 toll road and Whiting Ranch. Sunday they will be coordinating flights over the remainder of Whiting Ranch. We have had volunteers print out the Sheriff’s bulletin and distribute in their communities. Others have checked hospitals and local shelters. Needless to say we are doing everything we can to get the word out.”
Sadly, the search did not find Blaze alive.
5. Blaze Bernstein Sent a Text Message That Night But His Phone’s Location Device Stopped Working
What specifically happened to Blaze is still a mystery as authorities have provided few details.
On Facebook, Blaze’s most recent public post was on December 5, and it was a share of an event where free magazines were being given away. He also recently shared a petition, writing, “HI! PLEASE SIGN MY PETITION TO SUPPORT DIVERSITY AND INCLUSION AT PENN. TY.” The petition urged the university to add “Bahamian Junkanoo” music to the Spring Fling event.
According to The Orange County Register, Blaze “sent a text message at 9:30 p.m. Tuesday with his family’s address so a high school friend could pick him up and take him to the park to meet the third person.” Bernstein walked into the park alone. “Bernstein’s friend eventually began sending text messages to him when he didn’t return, but did not hear back from him… The friend left and then returned at 4 a.m. to look for Bernstein again,” reported The Register.
The newspaper added, “the location device on Bernstein’s phone stopped functioning and the phone was turned off at 11:30 p.m.”