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Hate crime charges not ruled out in UPenn student's fatal stabbing: Prosecutors

Wed, 17 Jan 2018 17:22:52 +0000

Orange County Sheriff's Department (LOS ANGELES) -- Prosecutors haven't ruled out hate crime charges in the fatal stabbing of University of Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said Wednesday.

"We are continuing to investigate, looking through all matters of the communication," he said. "We have an obligation to file charges only if there's sufficient evidence to prove beyond a reasonable doubt. A hate crime of special circumstance allegation requires that level of proof ... if and when we find it, we will amend the charges."

Bernstein, 19, who was gay, was at home in Southern California for winter break when he went missing on Jan. 2. After an extensive search, his body was found on Jan. 9 in the brush surrounding Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch, the Orange County Sheriff's Department said.

The Bernsteins said in a statement earlier this week, “Our son was a beautiful gentle soul who we loved more than anything. We were proud of everything he did and who he was. He had nothing to hide. We are in solidarity with our son and the LGBTQ community. There is still much discovery to be done and if it is determined that this was a hate crime, we will cry not only for our son, but for LGBTQ people everywhere that live in fear or who have been victims of hate crime.”

Samuel Woodward -- Bernstein's former classmate at the Orange County School of the Arts -- was arrested on Jan. 12 and has been charged with murder.

Woodward, 20, allegedly picked up Bernstein from his home the night he went missing, the district attorney's office said.

Woodward -- who is 50 pounds heavier than Bernstein -- is accused of stabbing him to death and burying his body in the dirt in the perimeter of the park, the district attorney's office said.

The exact time and place of the murder is under investigation, prosecutors said, adding that a motive has not been determined.

Prosecutors accuse Woodward of visiting the crime scene days after the murder. They also say Woodward cleaned up the car he used to pick up the Ivy League student.

Prosecutors allege Woodward later gave authorities a "false explanation" about abrasions on his arms and dirt on his hands. According to a search warrant affidavit that was obtained by The Orange County Register and later sealed, Woodward allegedly told investigators the abrasions on him were from a "fight club," the affidavit said.

According to the affidavit, Woodward allegedly told investigators that that night at the park, Bernstein left the car and walked off.

In the affidavit, Woodward said he waited for an hour for Bernstein to return to the car and then tried to reach him on Snapchat. When that failed, he said he went to his girlfriend's house and then returned to the park a few hours later to look for Bernstein.

Police said, according to the affidavit, during their questioning, Woodward couldn’t remember his girlfriend's last name or where she lived.

Rackauckas said Wednesday the family is "very distraught."

"This was a treasured young man," he said.

The Ivy League student's mother, Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, tweeted after the arrest, "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," she said.

Bernstein's parents later said in a statement, "We are heartbroken."

"When we stop crying we will start doing positive things to affect change," they said. "We ask that everyone work toward something good. Stop being complacent. Do something now.

"In the months to come, as part of our healing process, we too will act to heal the world. That is what Blaze would want," the Bernsteins said. "We still believe that people are good. We have seen this first hand in the tremendous amount of support we received from people everywhere."

Woodward, charged with murder, is set to appear at a bail hearing later Wednesday. If convicted, the maximum sentence is 26 years to life in state prison.



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