Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced today that his office is charging Samuel Woodward, 21, with a hate crime in the murder of Blaze Bernstein. Investigators uncovered new evidence revealing the “dark side of Woodward” in leading to the new charge. If convicted, the enhancement brings with it a maximum punishment of life without the possibility of parole for Woodward.
“We will prove that Woodward killed Blaze because Blaze was gay,” said Rackauckas during a news conference. “We have no room for this kind of hate in our society.”
Bernstein, a 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania student, visited friends and family in January before going missing. After a frantic search, Bernstein’s remains were discovered in a shallow grave at Borrego Park in Lake Forest. Prosecutors allege that Woodward, a Newport Beach resident who attended Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana with Bernstein, stabbed his former classmate to death before burying the body.
Rackauckas stated that investigators searched through Woodward’s cellphone, laptop and combed his social media in obtaining graphic, hateful images that were only described as racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and anti-government.
Bernstein was also Jewish in addition to being gay.
In February, Rackauckas held a press conference related to the Bernstein murder case to announce a new legislative effort from state senator Janet Nguyen to amend special circumstances protections to include crimes committed against people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity, a glaring omission that came into focus after the grisly killing. Nguyen joined Rackauckas again today to say that she may introduce the bill again next year after it stalled in the state legislature.
Even if the bill became law, it wouldn’t have affected charges in the Bernstein case, only those that followed it. Without the legislation, the OCDA was still able to add a hate crime charge today, just without the added weight of making Woodward eligible for the death penalty if found guilty.
A trio of investigative reporters with ProPublica tied Woodward to Atomwaffen Division, a fascist extremist group he attended a training with in Texas. Members even celebrated Bernstein’s death on encrypted chats online that Woodward himself participated in just three days after the murder. But Rackauckas has never made definitive statements on Woodward’s Atomwaffen affiliation, including today.
“We are looking for more evidence and the investigation continues,” he said. “That’s why we put out this question if anybody knows or has any information that Woodward belongs to any particular hate group at all, please let us know.”
Gideon and Jeanne Bernstein, Blaze’s parents, had brief messages to share about their son during the press conference. “Today we suffer the added layer of pain from learning that he was likely killed simply because of who he was,” said Gideon. “He was so many things and all of them were good.”