Suspect charged with murder in Penn student’s killing

University of Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein, 19, was killed last week in his California home town. Police Friday arrested a suspect in the slaying. (Orange County Sheriff's Department via AP)

University of Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein, 19, was killed last week in his California home town. Police Friday arrested a suspect in the slaying. (Orange County Sheriff's Department via 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, the complaint said, while Bernstein was visiting his parents on winter break from college.

The use of a deadly weapon was filed as a so-called enhancement which would allow Orange County prosecutors to seek more prison time for Woodward if he is convicted.

Authorities have said Bernstein went to the park with Woodward on Jan. 2. His body was found in a shallow grave a week later.

Woodward was arrested and told investigators he became angry after Bernstein kissed him the night they went to the park in Lake Forest.

Bernstein’s parents say the killing may have been a hate crime against their gay son.

“This investigation is ongoing and we’re continuing to search for evidence that might support special-circumstances allegations,” District Attorney Tony Rackauckus told a news conference.

Asked specifically about hate crime evidence, Rackauckus said, “We’re looking for that evidence and if and when we find it we will amend the charges and file that.”

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.

Although Bernstein’s body was found at the park, the time and place of the killing remained under investigation, he said.

Investigators found Woodward had abrasions, scratches, and dirt on his hands, and during surveillance he was seen cleaning the vehicle, Rackauckus said.

“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.

“Blaze should be back at college right now doing what college kids do — going to class, organizing study notes, hanging out with his friends, dreaming of what they would become.”

The district attorney said the case was developed with “old fashioned” detective work, surveillance, and examination of digital, physical, and DNA evidence.

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