Samuel Woodward, the high school friend who said he drove college student Blaze Bernstein to the park where Bernstein disappeared, is now accused in Bernstein’s murder, sheriff’s officials confirmed.
The disappearance of the University of Pennsylvania student was mysterious for days as it was reported that Blaze walked into the California park and simply did not return. Searches – including with drones – initially turned up nothing and Bernstein’s family took to social media in a public effort to find out what happened to their son, who was intending to study pre-med in Pennsylvania and edited a food magazine on campus. However, his body was then discovered in brush in a shallow grave.
At a press conference announcing the arrest on January 12, an attorney and friend for the Bernstein family read a statement for the family, which expressed their thanks for law enforcement and to the community.
“We will continue to search for justice for Blaze and his family,” the statement said. “Our words can not express how grateful the family is to their community here in Orange County and all over the world for expressing their love and support during this very difficult week. Blaze wanted to make the world a better place. With his death, a beautiful life has been extinguished.”
Blaze’s family urged the public to commit “acts of loving kindness” in memory of Blaze, saying, “By honoring Blaze’s memory, we hope you will make the world a better place.”
Here’s what you need to know:
1. Woodward & Bernstein Attended a School of the Arts Together
Woodward was arrested on January 12, 2018, only three days after authorities revealed that they had found Blaze’s body. The 20-year-old “was taken into custody Friday shortly after leaving his home in Newport Beach,” The Los Angeles Daily News reported, quoting a source.
Undersheriff Don Barnes offered condolences to the Bernstein family in a press conference in which he confirmed that Woodward was under arrest.
“We have seen an outpouring of support,” Barnes said, adding, “It’s vital to remember that Blaze was a 19-year-old young man with hopes and aspirations.” He added that “at first all clues pointed to a missing person’s case.”
Police followed leads and looked at surveillance video.
The friend, Woodward, told investigators he had picked up Blaze and they went to meet up with another friend, alleged Barnes. He said Blaze exited the vehicle and walked to the park by himself. Woodward said he waited for an hour, but Blaze didn’t return. He returned to look around the park and told investigators he didn’t find Blaze and left, according to Barnes.
On January 4, the Sheriff’s Department started the search for Blaze, which lasted for days. At first, no evidence was discovered. At the outset of this case, the concern was to find Blaze. The search came to an end when Blaze’s body was found at the park in a “shallow grave” in brush.
The case turned from a missing person’s case to a homicide investigation, said Barnes. Authorities interviewed witnesses again, including Woodward. For the last three days, since Blaze’s body was discovered, the investigators worked to bring a suspect into custody.
Inconsistencies in the story of Woodward led authorities to focus on Woodward in the death, said Barnes.
“Our investigators have identified a suspect in this case and we have brought him into custody,” he confirmed, identifying the suspect as Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 20, of Newport Beach. According to Barnes, investigators believe that Woodward and Barnes drove “to many locations before arriving at the park.” The specific details of what happened at the park are part of the final investigation. No details will be shared regarding the condition of the body and cause of death until the investigation is concluded, said Barnes.
“Woodward had told homicide investigators that he drove Bernstein to Borrego Ranch Park on Jan. 2, the night Bernstein disappeared,” the Los Angeles Daily News reported. The Orange County Register also confirmed the name.
The Daily News added that Bernstein and Woodward attended high school together, reporting, “Bernstein and the arrested man had attended the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana at the same time at one point.”
2. Bernstein’s Mother Responded That ‘Revenge Is Empty’ & a Page in Woodward’s Name Says He Wished He Could Have Dinner With Ronald Reagan
The news of the arrest sparked an emotional tweet from Blaze Bernstein’s heartbroken mother. Blaze’s father had been front and center in public efforts to keep attention on his son’s disappearance.
“Finally,” wrote Jeanne Pepper on Twitter. “My thoughts are: Revenge is empty. It will never bring back my son. My only hopes are that he will never have the opportunity to hurt anyone else again and that something meaningful can come from the senseless act of Blaze’s murder. Now Do Good for Blaze Bernstein.”
Police confirmed an arrest in the case.
According to the Los Angeles Daily News, “Around 1:15 p.m., two sheriff’s investigators brought the handcuffed man to the Orange County Jail. He had on a sweatshirt that read, ‘Keep the peace.’”
Although Woodward does not appear to have an active Facebook page in his name, there is an ASKfm page in his name that mentions his high school. The page says its author would like to have had dinner with Ronald Reagan. The question was posed: “What is something you have lost, that you wish you could get back?” The answer: “Hope for humanity.” Asked “If you could learn a new skill today, what would it be?” and the answer came in one word “waterboarding.”
Asked his attitude to human cloning, and the answer was: “Just One of me in the world is already bad enough…”
3. Authorities Are Still Investigating the Motive
The sheriff’s official, Barnes, gave a chronology of the case. He said that the motive is not yet clear, and authorities also did not share much information on how Bernstein and Woodward knew each other beyond high school.
On January 3, the family had reported Blaze missing. He was home on winter break and had last been seen by his family the night before, when they shared dinner together. Blaze’s father last saw him in his room after dinner.
The following day, his family became concerned when he missed a dental appointment. They searched his room and found his belongings, including credit cards and glasses.
The homicide investigators took over. The family accessed Blaze’s Snapchat account and contacted the friend who had last had contact with him, who came to the Bernstein home and picked him up.
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.
Friends and family members have said before that 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 a friend to take him to the wilderness area around 11 p.m. The friend – who has not been publicly named – stayed in nearby Borrego Park, according to CBS Los Angeles. That friend was Woodward.
4. Woodward Was Accused of Having Dirt Under His Fingernails & Hand Abrasions
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 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.
5. Bernstein Edited a Food Magazine on Campus & Wanted to Study Medicine
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 Register 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’s family described him as brilliant and colorful in social media messages.
“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 shortly after Bernstein’s body was found.
“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.”