Metro Weekly

Man Found Guilty of Killing Gay, Jewish College Student

Samuel Woodward was convicted of first-degree murder and hate crime charges in the 2018 slaying of Blaze Bernstein.

Murder victim Blaze Bernstein — Photo: Instagram

A California man has been convicted on murder and hate crime charges for the 2018 stabbing death of a gay, Jewish University of Pennsylvania student.

Samuel Woodward, 26, was found guilty of first-degree murder, plus a hate crime enhancement, for killing Blaze Bernstein, who had been visiting his family in southern California on winter break when he went missing around January 2, 2018.

After eight days, authorities searching for him found his body in a shallow grave at a nearby park.

Both Woodward and Bernstein had attended the same high school, Orange County School of the Arts, for a little over two years. According to testimony at trial, Woodward said he matched Bernstein on the dating app Tinder, in 2017.

He was startled to find Bernstein on the app, and unmatched with him, only to rematch on the app six months later. The two then started communicating through Snapchat.

The trial focused not so much on the question of whether Woodward killed Bernstein, but why, and the circumstances under which it happened.

At trial, Woodward claimed he picked up Bernstein and went to a nearby park in Lake Forest, California, where they laid down a sleeping bag and began smoking marijuana.

Woodward claimed he drifted in and out of consciousness due to the marijuana, and felt something on his leg. He claimed that Bernstein’s hand was on his crotch and his pants were unbuckled. He also alleged that Bernstein had his cell phone in his other hand while touching him — making him believe that the 19-year-old college student was taking covert photos of him. 

He claimed to be fearful that Bernstein would “out” him as gay, record video of him, or post pictures of him online, and worried about how his conservative family would react to such news.

Woodward, who claimed to have been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, testified that he got so angry with Bernstein that he lost control, smashing Bernstein’s phone and stabbing him while Bernstein fought back. In total, medical examiners say Woodward stabbed Bernstein 28 times in the face and neck.

Woodward dug a shallow grave, where he buried Bernstein’s body. He said at trial that he later sent texts to Bernstein’s phone asking about his whereabouts,to throw off suspicion in case police began investigating Bernstein’s disappearance.

Bernstein’s family became concerned on the day after he left the house with Woodward, finding the teen’s glasses, wallet, and credit cards in his bedroom. They sent him texts and calls, which went unanswered. Authorities launched an in-depth investigation, discovering his Snapchat correspondence with Woodward, who initially claimed Bernstein had left him to meet up with another friend in the park, but did not return.

Police later searched Woodward’s family home in Newport Beach, where they recovered a folding knife with a bloodied blade in his room. They also found a black Atomwaffen mask with traces of blood on it, and a host of anti-gay, anti-Semitic, and hate group materials, according to prosecutors.

At trial, Woodward denied being gay or having same-sex attraction, despite at least one classmate claiming that Woodward had sent him nude photos of himself, a charge Woodward refuted.

Woodward’s attorney, Ken Morrison, asked his client about his Internet search history, which included gay porn sites in 2015 and 2016. Woodward said he visited the websites to gather graphic images and videos to antagonize other users of an online community to which he belonged.

He claimed to be affiliated with Atomwaffen Division, a far-right neo-Nazi group, but did not admit to being a member. Woodward claimed to have become affiliated with Atomwaffen as part of a search for a brotherhood and something meaningful.

It was that affiliation that prosecutors sought to use against Woodward to prove he had been motivated by anti-gay and anti-Jewish animus to plan and carry out the murder. Prosecutors claimed that Woodward repeatedly targeted gay men online by reaching out to them, and then abruptly breaking off contact, while keeping a hateful, profanity-laced journal of his actions.

They also claimed Woodward showed an interest in carrying out violent acts in the weeks leading up to Bernstein’s murder.

Woodward is scheduled to be sentenced on October 25. With the hate crime enhancement, Woodward could face up to life in prison. 

Orange County District Attorney Todd Spitzer hailed the verdict.

“Hate will never be tolerated here in Orange County,” Spitzer said in a statement. “And instead of a symbol to be revered by other haters, [Woodward] is a symbol of how society will never tolerate those who terrorize the most vulnerable members of our society.” 

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