A Southern California man with ties to a violent neo-nazi group suspected of murdering a former friend earlier this year killed the young man because he was gay, prosecutors said.
Samuel Woodward, who is accused of murdering 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania sophomore Blaze Bernstein in January, will face enhanced hate-crimes charges, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said at a press conference announced Thursday.
“We will prove that Woodward killed Blaze because Blaze was gay,” Rackauckas said. “We have no room for this kind of hate in our society.”
The investigation into Woodward’s alleged biases, and any possible motivation for killing Bernstein, who was gay and Jewish, is ongoing, and Rackauckas urged anyone with information to come forward.
Bernstein’s parents joined Rackauckas to push for the harshest possible sentencing in his murder and any other motivated by hate, but called for their son to be remembered as a force for good in the world.
“He was so many things, and all of them were good,” said dad Gideon Bernstein at the press conference Thursday. “Our only objective at this point is to make sure that maximum sentencing is an option to make sure that no one is ever hurt or killed again by hate.”
Woodward, 21, who’s been charged with first-degree murder, already faces a maximum penalty of 26 years to life in prison. If convicted under the hate-crime statute, he would face a maximum of life without parole, Rackauckas said.
Bernstein disappeared in January while home in California from school visiting his parents, according to the Associated Press. He was reported missing on Jan. 3, and his body was found Jan. 9 in a park in Lake Forest, and investigators determined he had been stabbed more than 20 times.
Woodward had picked Bernstein up the night of Jan. 2, and drove around town before ending up at Borrego Park, a wooded area in Lake Forest, prosecutors said. It was there that Woodward allegedly snapped — early reports suggested it was due to Bernstein trying to kiss Woodward — and brutally stabbed his former pal to death and buried him in the park, according to the Orange County District Attorney’s office.
Woodward, a high-school acquaintence of Bernstein's hailing from the tony enclave of Newport Beach, came under the suspicion of investigators after cops noticed he had dirt under his fingernails, and he was arrested on Jan. 12, officials said.
Woodward was known for being politically conservative, and for defending the display of the confederate flag, according to the Orange County Register. But as the investigation continued, a more sinister allegiance came to light.
In an investigation by ProPublica, three people who knew Woodward said he was a member of the Atomwaffen Division, a violent and secretive neo-Nazi group with an obsession with the occult and ties to at least five killings since 2017.
Woodward joined the group, which experts say is more committed to violence than many of its fellow travelers in the so-called alt-right, in 2016, and went to Texas for meetings and training, according to ProPublica, which spoke to two friends of Woodward and a former member of Atomwaffen.
Chat logs shared with ProPublica showed that Woodward openly identified as a “National Socialist,” and one friend described him as “as anti-Semitic as you can get,” according to the investigation.
Not long after Woodward’s arrest, photos surfaced of him wearing a skull mask and throwing a Nazi salute, and as prosecutors dug into his digital footprint, they found increasingly disturbing material that was homophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, and anti-government, Rackauckas said
The investigation into Woodward’s connections with Atomwaffen, which were first discovered by British journalist Jake Hanrahan, is set to be included in a documentary premiering on PBS Aug. 7 by ProPublica and Frontline looking at the surge of far-right violence in the wake of President Donald Trump’s election and last year’s violent rally in Charlottesville.
[Photo: Orange County District Attorney's Office]