SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) — A former high school classmate of a University of Pennsylvania student found stabbed and buried in a California park was charged Wednesday with murder and investigators were looking for evidence of a hate crime, a prosecutor said.
Samuel Woodward, 20, killed 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein with a knife, prosecutors said, while the college sophomore was visiting his parents on winter break.
"We're continuing to search for evidence that might support special-circumstances allegations," District Attorney Tony Rackauckus said at a news conference. He said prosecutors were still trying to determine a motive for the killing and looking into whether it was a hate crime.
"This is a senseless murder of a young man who possessed a combination of a high-caliber mind and the heart of a poet," Rackauckus said.
Authorities said Woodward picked up Bernstein at his parents' home in Lake Forest around 11 p.m. on Jan. 2 and took him to a neighborhood park. His body was found in a shallow grave there a week later.
Bernstein's parents have said the killing may have been a hate crime against their gay son. According to a court filing obtained by the Orange County Register, Woodward told investigators that he became angry after Bernstein kissed him the night they went to the park.
Woodward appeared in court Wednesday in an orange jail jumpsuit but did not enter a plea. He was ordered held without bail until his arraignment on Feb. 2.
If convicted of murder and an allegation he used a deadly weapon, Woodward could face as much as 26 years to life in prison.
Woodward's parents held hands and sat with a Catholic priest who is a long-time friend of the family. Other church members also attended the brief hearing.
"This is a tragedy," defense attorney Edward Munoz said later to reporters. He said his heart goes out to Bernstein family and that the Woodward family is in shock.
"This young man I'm representing was an Eagle Scout and now he's facing murder," Munoz said.
The district attorney said the two young men had both attended the Orange County School of the Arts but he did not know if they were friends at the time.
Woodward communicated with Bernstein via Snapchat on Jan. 2 and then picked him up in a vehicle, Rackauckus said.
Bernstein's parents reported him missing the following day. Authorities searched for nearly a week with help from drone pilots. His body was found in brush surrounding the park after rains partially exposed it.
The time and place of the killing remained under investigation. Investigators said Woodward had abrasions, scratches and dirt on his hands and was seen during surveillance cleaning his vehicle, Rackauckus said.
The district attorney also said Bernstein's DNA was found on property held by Woodward but would not provide additional details.
Bernstein had been studying psychology and was recently chosen to edit a campus culinary magazine. Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil and his funeral.
"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," Bernstein's family said in a statement earlier this week.
In the days after Bernstein disappeared, Woodward attended Mass at his family's parish church in Newport Beach and took communion, said Msgr. Wilbur Davis, who attended the court hearing.
"Both sides are in pain," he said. "Our heart goes out to all those who suffer, for whatever reason."
AP reporter John Antczak contributed to this report from Los Angeles.