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LGBTQ college student is stabbed 20 times in an ‘act of rage,’ but was it a hate crime?

They both went to high school at the elite Orange County School of the Arts, but the classmates weren’t particularly close.

Blaze Bernstein, home on winter break from the University of Pennsylvania, messaged with Samuel Woodward on Snapchat. On Jan. 2, Woodward drove over and picked him up.

Bernstein’s family would never see him again.

The 19-year-old’s body was found eight days later in a shallow grave in Orange County’s Borrego Park. He had been stabbed at least 20 times.

Woodward would go on to tell detectives that Bernstein had kissed him, according to a law enforcement source who was unauthorized to discuss the case publicly and requested anonymity. Woodward, the source said, also told investigators he had wanted to call Bernstein a “faggot.”

‘Act of rage’

Now, Woodward, 20, has been charged in the death, and prosecutors are trying to determine if Bernstein is a victim of 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,” Orange County Dist. Atty. Tony Rackauckas said Wednesday, calling the killing an “act of rage.”

Woodward was charged Wednesday with one felony count of murder with a sentencing enhancement of using a knife.

Woodward, wearing an orange jail jumpsuit, appeared briefly in a court hearing in Santa Ana on Wednesday.

Wilbur Davis, a retired pastor at Our Lady Queen of Angels church in Newport Beach, sat with Woodward’s parents during the hearing, holding his mother’s hand and saying the Lord’s Prayer with them.

Davis said he has known the Woodward family for a decade. He last saw Samuel Woodward on Jan. 7 — three days before Bernstein’s body was discovered — when he attended church and took communion.

Woodward’s parents, he noted, go to church “almost daily,” and his mother has participated in the bereavement ministry.

‘Trying to make sense’

“We are all in shock,” Davis said. “Both sides are in pain. Both sides are victims.”

Edward Muñoz, an attorney for Woodward, said his client was a former Eagle Scout who attended college in Ventura County for a year before dropping out.

The Woodward family, Muñoz said, is “trying to make sense of this whole thing.”

Bernstein, a pre-med student, was reported missing Jan. 3 by his family, who became concerned after he didn’t show up for a dental appointment and they found his wallet and eyeglasses in his bedroom.

Desperate to find him, his parents, Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, learned their son had left the house by “hacking into his computer and getting into his social media account,” Jeanne Pepper Bernstein said in an interview Wednesday.

“Most people our age don’t understand how much our children are using social media for communicating,” Gideon Bernstein said.

For days, sheriff’s search-and-rescue teams, canine units, helicopters and even drones operated by family and friends scoured Borrego Park and adjacent rugged canyon lands looking for clues.

On Jan. 10, Bernstein’s body was found buried in a shallow grave in the park after rain runoff exposed part of the remains.

Soon after she learned of Bernstein’s death, his 14-year-old sister, Beaue, went through a scrapbook and discovered a letter their mother, Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, had written to her son on the first day of school when the boy was in first garde.

“My stomach clenches a little bit at thinking of my tiny little boy (all 46 inches) walking to class by himself, but I know you’ll make it to Room 16 when I leave you at the curb of Foothill Ranch Elementary School,” she wrote Sept. 21, 2004.

Bernstein’s body was found next to the school, his mother said.

‘Old-fashioned detective work’

Woodward was placed under surveillance and arrested after leaving his house at about 1:15 p.m. Friday. Authorities said DNA evidence at the crime scene in Borrego Park and inside Woodward’s car tied him to the slaying.

“This case was solved through old-fashioned detective work and surveillance as well as sophisticated examination of digital, physical and DNA evidence,” Rackauckas said.

Woodward, he said, had “abrasions, scratches and dirt on his hands,” and had cleaned the car that he used the night he picked up Bernstein. He also visited the crime scene “days after the murder,” Rackauckas said.

The district attorney refused to say whether Woodward had confessed to the killing.

Detectives used Bernstein’s Snapchat account to identify Woodward, and detectives found inconsistencies in what he told authorities, investigators said.

A law enforcement source familiar with the details of the investigation said detectives were suspicious of Woodward’s account. Woodward had said he dropped off Bernstein at the park after midnight and he had gone to his girlfriend’s house. He said he became concerned about Bernstein and returned around 4 a.m., the source said.

Asked about abrasions on his body, Woodward said they were from a “fight club” and said his hands were dirty from a “dirt puddle” he fell into, the source said. He also told detectives he could not remember his girlfriend’s last name or where she lived, the source added.

After the interviews, detectives began surveillance on Woodward and placed a GPS tracker on his car, the source said.

Bernstein and Woodward knew each other in high school, but there is no indication they were friends, Rackauckas said. He drew a contrast in their physical differences: Woodward is 6 foot 2 and weighs 185 pounds, while Bernstein stood 5 foot 8 and weighed 135 pounds.

This week, Bernstein’s family said it’s possible their son was the victim of a hate crime because of his sexuality.

The parents wrote in an email to The Times that “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.”

anh.do@latimes.com

Twitter: @newsterrier

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson

sonali.kohli@latimes.com

Twitter: @sonali_kohli

Times staff writer Cindy Carcamo contributed to this report.

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