SANTA ANA (CBSLA) – A hate crime charge was filed Thursday against a Newport Beach man already accused of murdering a gay former high school classmate whose body was found buried in a shallow grave in a Lake Forest park.
Twenty-one-year-old Samuel Lincoln Woodward had already been charged with murder in the January killing of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein, but prosecutors did not immediately deem the killing a hate crime.
“This complaint is going to add a hate crime enhancement, accusing Woodward of intentionally committing first-degree murder, due in whole, or in part, due to Blaze’s sexual orientation,” Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said. “We will prove that Woodward killed Blaze because Blaze was gay.”
Adding the allegation means Woodward — who was already facing 26 years to life in prison – – could now face life in prison without the possibility of parole. The amended criminal complaint filed against Woodward alleges he carried out the killing due to Bernstein’s sexual orientation.
Woodward is accused of fatally stabbing Bernstein, a University of Pennsylvania pre-med student, who was last seen by Woodward late the night of Jan. 2. Bernstein was found dead a week later in a shallow grave at Borrego Park, near his family’s home.
Woodward and Bernstein were classmates at the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana and had reconnected through the social media platform Snapchat. Bernstein was home from college on winter break when he was slain.
District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said in January that Woodward picked up Bernstein from his parents’ Lake Forest home at about 11 p.m. on Jan. 2, and drove him to a shopping center on Portola Parkway in Foothill Ranch. Later, the two went to Borrego Park in Lake Forest, he said.
At some point, Woodward stabbed Bernstein multiple times, then buried his body in a dirt perimeter at the park, Rackauckas said.
A search warrant affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register in January suggested that Bernstein may have tried to kiss Woodward, who responded by killing him in an act of rage.
Bernstein’s family realized he was missing Jan. 3 when he missed a dentist appointment and did not answer text messages or phone calls. His wallet, credit cards, glasses and cash were all found in his room.
Investigators were led to Woodward after accessing Bernstein’s Snapchat account. Woodward was eventually arrested on Jan. 12.
Rackauckas had noted in January that state law does not allow prosecutors to attach a special-circumstance allegation to a murder charge in a case when a victim is targeted because they are female or gay.
CBS2’s Michele Gile reported the DA continues to investigate Woodward’s possible ties to hate groups.
Bernstein’s parents attended the news conference Thursday.
“Today we suffer an added layer of pain from learning that he was most likely killed because of who he was as a human being,” said his father, Gideon.
“We are people who are suffering because of hate,” said Blaze’s mother, Jeanne. “We live in a world where hate is real and the people that practice it can be hiding in a child’s bedroom in a computer.”
On Thursday evening, Jeanne and Gideon sat down with KCAL9’s Stacey Butler to discuss the hate crime enhancement.
Neither was shocked or surprised by the move. They knew it all along.
“That it was a hate crime,” said Gideon.
“I always knew something like this would happen,” said Jeanne.
Bernstein’s parents told Butler they want the world to focus less on hate but living in a way that would make their son proud.
“If we can change one person’s mind from being somebody who’s a bigot to being somebody who can actually learn to love, which can happen, then we have been given a gift,” said Gideon.
The Bernsteins know they have a long road ahead — a trial date has not been set and additional charges could be filed.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. City News Service contributed to this report.)