Calif. Man Convicted in 2018 Hate-Motivated Murder of Gay Ex-Classmate Blaze Bernstein

On July 3, an Orange County jury convicted Samuel L. Woodward, 26, of first-degree murder with a hate crime enhancement

Help Us Find Blaze Bernstein/Facebook Blaze Bernstein
Help Us Find Blaze Bernstein/Facebook Blaze Bernstein

A California man has been convicted of hate-motivated murder for stabbing his gay former high school classmate nearly 30 times at a park in 2018, prosecutors said.

On July 3, an Orange County jury convicted Samuel L. Woodward, 26, of first-degree murder with a hate crime enhancement and personal use of a knife in the death of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, according to a press release sent to PEOPLE from the Orange County District Attorney’s Office.

Prosecutors said Woodward, who previously pleaded not guilty, faces a maximum sentence of life without the possibility of parole in state prison. He is scheduled to be sentenced Oct. 25.

Bernstein, a pre-med student at the University of Pennsylvania, was spending time at home with his family in Southern California for winter break when he was last seen on Jan. 2, 2018.

Related: College Student Murdered on Break Was Killed by Former Classmate Because He Was Gay: Prosecutors

Prosecutors said Bernstein and Woodward both previously attended the Orange County School of the Arts and that the two met up that night around 11 p.m. after communicating through a dating app. After having dinner with his family, Bernstein was picked up by Woodward, leaving his glasses, keys, and wallet behind, prosecutors said.

“Less than two hours later, Bernstein’s body would be buried in a shallow grave in a Lake Forest park after having been stabbed 28 times by his former high school classmate who had led him to believe they were in the park for a romantic encounter,” the release states.

After Bernstein missed a dentist appointment the following afternoon, his parents reported him missing. Authorities scoured the area for days before his body was found buried in Borrego Park in Lake Forest, Calif., on Jan. 9, 2018.

While Bernstein was missing, his parents went through his online activity and found that the last person he had communicated with was Woodward, who told them that he had met up with their son but that he had walked off into the park with someone else and never saw Bernstein again, according to the release.

Related: PEOPLE Explains: UPenn Student Blaze Bernstein's Killing as New Details Emerge After Friend's Arrest

The investigation eventually led to Woodward’s arrest on Jan. 12, 2018. Prosecutors said Bernstein’s blood was found on a knife belonging to Woodward and blood droplets were found on a skull mask that prosecutors argued Woodward wore to represent his allegiance to Atomwaffen, a Neo-Nazi and homophobic group. They added that Woodward traveled to Texas to train with the group after studying their teachings.

<p>Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty</p> Samuel Woodward in Orange County Superior Court on June 13, 2024.

Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty

Samuel Woodward in Orange County Superior Court on June 13, 2024.

According to the release, investigators also found what prosecutors called a “hate diary,” which detailed Woodward’s online activities to lure gay men and boys into believing he was “bi curious,” and then unfriending them. The diary reportedly contained numerous slurs referring to gay men.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Woodward’s defense claimed he killed Bernstein only because he provoked him.

According to KABC-TV, Woodward testified that he committed the stabbing after trying to grab a phone he believed Bernstein used to record him while touching him sexually. During closing arguments, Woodward’s defense attorney, Ken Morrison, said while his client was “guilty of a serious, violent homicide,” the killing was not a hate crime, the outlet reported.

At a news conference, Bernstein’s mother, Jeanne Pepper, said she was “thrilled with the verdict,” the L.A. Times reported. “This is a great relief that justice is served, and this despicable human who murdered our son will no longer be a threat to the public,” she added, per the outlet.

Related: Tribute to Slain Penn Student Blaze Bernstein Asks People to Do Good and 'Blaze It Forward'

At the time of his death, Bernstein had just become the managing editor of Penn Appétit, a food magazine at the University of Pennsylvania and was “very excited” about it, Bernstein’s father, Gideon Bernstein, previously told the Orange County Register.

“This was not a crime committed in the heat of passion; it was planned, it was carried out, and it was attempted to be covered up and Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker painstaking walked the jury through every piece of evidence that proved it,” Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer said in the release.

“Every one of the 28 stab wounds inflicted on 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein was an act of hate that was carried out over and over again not just to kill Blaze, but to send a message.”

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