Penn student Blaze Bernstein was murdered because he was gay: prosecutors

The University of Pennsylvania student viciously stabbed to death and buried in a shallow grave in southern California last January was murdered because he was gay, authorities said Thursday.

Orange County’s top prosecutor announced the finding as he filed an amended complaint against suspected killer Samuel Woodward that now includes a “hate crime” sentencing enhancement.

The new enhancement means Woodward, 21, could be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted as charged.

Woodward previously was facing a maximum of 26 years to life for the single felony count of murder with a knife filed January 17.

22 PHOTOS
Blaze Bernstein homicide case
See Gallery
Blaze Bernstein homicide case

Blaze Bernstein was last seen around 11 p.m. on January 2nd at Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch, CA.


(Photo via Blaze It Forward/Facebook)

SANTA ANA, CA - JANUARY 17: Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 20, of Newport Beach, a suspect in the murder of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, appears in court at the Orange County Central Justice Center on January 17, 2018 in Santa Ana, California. Woodward is charged with murder with a sentencing enhancement of personal use of a knife. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
SANTA ANA, CA - JANUARY 17: Msgr. Wilbur Davis, of Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Newport Beach, explains to the media how Samuel Lincoln Woodward was named after Samuel in Bible and took communion two weeks ago. Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 20, of Newport Beach, left, a suspect in the murder of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, appeared in court at the Orange County Central Justice Center on January 17, 2018 in Santa Ana, California. Woodward is charged with murder with a sentencing enhancement of personal use of a knife. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
LAKE FOREST, CA - JANUARY 10: The parents of Blaze Bernstein, Jeanne Pepper Bernstein and Gideon Bernstein, embrace prior to reading a family statement at a press conference at the Orange County Sheriff's Department in Lake Forest on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018 to announce that a body discovered in Borrego Park has been identified as their missing son Blaze Bernstein . (Photo by Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Blaze Bernstein was last seen around 11 p.m. on January 2nd at Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch, CA.

(Photo via Blaze It Forward/Facebook)

NEWPORT BEACH, CA - AUGUST 22: Samuel Woodward leaves a court hearing at the Harbor Justice Center in Newport Beach, CA on Wednesday, August 22, 2018. Woodward is charged with the murder of his former high school classmate Blaze Bernstein in January, 2018. (Photo by Paul Bersebach/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
LAKE FOREST, CA - JANUARY 10: Mourners comfort each other as they join more that 300 people in Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch, Lake Forest on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018 for a candlelight vigil for Blaze Bernstein. A make-shift memorial of photos, candles and flowers was setup on a picnic table near the spot where Bernstein's body was found. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
SANTA ANA, CA - JANUARY 17: Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 20, of Newport Beach, left, a suspect in the murder of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, consults with his attorney Edward Munoz as he appears in court at the Orange County Central Justice Center on January 17, 2018 in Santa Ana, California. Woodward is charged with murder with a sentencing enhancement of personal use of a knife. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
LAKE FOREST, CA - JANUARY 10: A poster with the family photo of Blaze Bernstein was on display at a press conference at the Orange County Sheriff's Department in Lake Forest on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018 to announce that a body discovered in Borrego Park has been identified as missing teen Blaze Bernstein. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
SANTA ANA, CA - JANUARY 17: Attorney Edward Munoz, defense attorney for Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 20, of Newport Beach, a suspect in the murder of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, is questioned by reporters after Woodward appeared in court at the Orange County Central Justice Center on January 17, 2018 in Santa Ana, California. Woodward is charged with murder with a sentencing enhancement of personal use of a knife. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
LAKE FOREST, CA - JANUARY 10: The parents of Blaze Bernstein, Jeanne Pepper Bernstein and Gideon Bernstein, left, read a family statement at a press conference at the Orange County Sheriff's Department in Lake Forest on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. Orange County Sheriff's Chief of Police Services Brad Valentine, right, listens to the statement about their son. A body discovered in Borrego Park has been identified as their missing son Blaze Bernstein. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Blaze Bernstein was last seen around 11 p.m. on January 2nd at Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch, CA.

(Photo via Blaze It Forward/Facebook)

SANTA ANA, CA - JANUARY 17: Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 20, of Newport Beach, left, a suspect in the murder of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, consults with his attorney Edward Munoz as he appears in court at the Orange County Central Justice Center on January 17, 2018 in Santa Ana, California. Woodward is charged with murder with a sentencing enhancement of personal use of a knife. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Blaze Bernstein was last seen around 11 p.m. on January 2nd at Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch, CA.

(Photo via Blaze It Forward/Facebook)

SANTA ANA, CA - JANUARY 17: Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 20, of Newport Beach, right, a suspect in the murder of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, consults with his attorney Edward Munoz as he appears in court at the Orange County Central Justice Center on January 17, 2018 in Santa Ana, California. Woodward is charged with murder with a sentencing enhancement of personal use of a knife. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Blaze Bernstein was last seen around 11 p.m. on January 2nd at Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch, CA.

(Photo via Blaze It Forward/Facebook)

LAKE FOREST, CA - JANUARY 10: A note with flowers at memorial set up for Blaze Bernstein in Borrego Park in Lake Forest on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018. The memorial is near a wooded at the edge of the park that is thought to be the location where the body of Blaze Bernstein was found. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
#OCSDPIO: Search continues for missing 19 y.o., Blaze Bernstein. Approx 25 OCSD Reserve deputies searching the Whit… https://t.co/kjcSELPXJm

Blaze Bernstein was last seen around 11 p.m. on January 2nd at Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch, CA.


(Photo via Help Us Find Blaze Bernstein/Facebook)

IRVINE, CA - JANUARY 15: An woman overcome with emotion leaves the University Synagogue following the memorial service for Blaze Bernstein in Irvine on Monday, Jan. 15, 2018. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
LAKE FOREST, CA - JANUARY 10: A wooded area at the edge of Borrego Park in Lake Forest on Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2018 is thought to be the location where the body of Blaze Bernstein was found. A memorial of balloons and flowers, left, was placed on a table near the site. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)
SANTA ANA, CA - JANUARY 17: Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 20, of Newport Beach, left, a suspect in the murder of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, consults with his attorney Edward Munoz as he appears in court at the Orange County Central Justice Center on January 17, 2018 in Santa Ana, California. Woodward is charged with murder with a sentencing enhancement of personal use of a knife. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
HIDE CAPTION
SHOW CAPTION
of
SEE ALL
BACK TO SLIDE

It was a review of Woodward’s laptop, cell phone and social media accounts that revealed a sickening stockpile of homophobic, racist, anti-Semitic and misogynistic material, DA Tony Rackauckas said at a press conference.

“There's a lot there that just spews hatred towards a lot of different groups of people, basically every protected group,” Rackauckas said.

“So it’s hatred of many different groups of people. But the evidence of the motivation for this particular killing is we can show evidence that he killed him at least substantially because he was gay,” Rackauckas said.

“We have no room for this kind of hate in our society,” Rackauckas told reporters.

According to a report in late January, Woodward was a member of the notorious Neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division.

Two friends and a former member told ProPublica that Woodward joined the group, which celebrates Hitler and Charles Manson, in 2016.

Asked about Woodward’s alleged Neo-Nazi ties on Thursday, Rackauckas said he couldn’t comment.

“We live in a world where hate is real and the people that practice it can be hiding in your home in your child’s computer,” Bernstein’s parents said in a joint statement.

“We continue to look towards the future and what we can do to make a difference,” they said, encouraging others to continue their son’s “legacy of improving the human condition, one intentional act of kindness at a time.”

Woodward has pleaded not guilty to the killing. He is being held on $5 million bail with a preliminary hearing set for August 22.

Bernstein, 19, went missing while visiting his parents at their Lake Forest, Calif., home during his holiday break.

Woodward allegedly picked him up around 11 p.m. on January 2 and drove with him to the parking lot of a shopping center in Foothill Ranch, authorities said.

The two knew each other from their time attending Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana.

Woodward, who is 6 feet, two inches tall and 185 pounds, then drove Bernstein, who was 5 feet, 8 inches tall and 135 pounds, to Borrego Park in Lake Forest, prosecutors said.

At some point, Woodward stabbed Bernstein repeatedly and buried his body in the dirt perimeter of the park, prosecutors said.

Bernstein’s parents reported him missing on Jan. 3, and a desperate search commenced with a team of 25 search and rescue deputies, K-9 dogs, helicopters and drones.

Bernstein’s body was found January 9. Woodward was arrested January 12 at his home in a tony section of nearby Newport Beach.

Under current California law, prosecutors can seek the death penalty when someone is murdered in a hate crime linked to their race, religion or nationality.

A new state law has been proposed to add sexual orientation to that list.

- With News Wire Reports

Read Full Story