Blaze Bernstein’s family knew something was wrong. He had not been answering calls and text messages, and he did not show up to his dentist appointment. His wallet, glasses, credit cards and cash were in his bedroom, but the 19-year-old was nowhere to be found.
Until nearly a week later.
On Tuesday investigators found Bernstein’s body buried in a shallow grave in a park not far from his family’s home in Southern California. Investigators believe the University of Pennsylvania sophomore, who was home in Orange County for the winter break, was killed after he left his house on the night of Jan. 2.
The suspect: his classmate from high school.
Orange County Undersheriff Don Barnes told reporters this week that investigators quickly focused on 20-year-old Samuel Lincoln Woodward, who they say had been talking to Bernstein on Snapchat the night he disappeared. Woodward told investigators that he picked up Bernstein from his home in Lake Forest, Calif., and they drove to a Hobby Lobby parking lot to “hang out” and “catch up,” the Orange County Register reported, citing a court affidavit. Later, they drove to Borrego Park to meet with another friend from high school, Woodward told detectives.
After arriving at the park, Bernstein got out of the car, but he never came back, Woodward said. He waited for an hour and drove to his girlfriend’s house around 1 a.m., Woodward told investigators. He went back to the park less than two hours later, but Bernstein was still nowhere to be found.
Barnes said there were inconsistencies with Woodward’s account of what happened.
When asked about his girlfriend, Woodward could not remember her last name or where she lived — even though he claimed to have driven to her house, according to the affidavit cited by the Register. When detectives spoke to him again on Jan. 4, two days after Bernstein disappeared, his hands had several scratches and abrasions. He claimed he was part of a “fight club.”
When investigators noticed dirt under his fingernails, Woodward said he “fell into a dirt puddle” during a sparring session. And as he was walking inside the sheriff’s headquarters during an interview, he kept himself from touching the doors by pulling his jacket over his hand.
Barnes said DNA evidence connected Woodward to the crime, though he did not elaborate.
Woodward was arrested Friday afternoon.
“Finally,” Bernstein’s mother, Jeanne, tweeted shortly after the arrest. “My thoughts are: Revenge is empty. It will never bring back my son. My only hopes are that he will never have the opportunity to hurt anyone else again and that something meaningful can come from the senseless act of Blaze’s murder.”
Several questions remain unanswered about Bernstein’s death, which jolted a community officials say rarely sees such violence. Authorities have not said how or why he died or whether a weapon was used. Barnes also declined to describe Bernstein’s relationship with Woodward. According to the Register, they attended the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, Calif., together.
Barnes, however, said that investigators believe Woodward acted alone. Investigators also say Bernstein’s body was in that shallow grave the whole time he was missing.
Jail records show Woodward is being held without bond and is scheduled to appear in court Wednesday.
The days of frantic search for Bernstein caught the attention of celebrities. Kobe Bryant shared a news release earlier this week about Bernstein’s disappearance.
“Let’s get him home !!” actor Jeremy Piven tweeted on Tuesday, the same day authorities found Bernstein’s body.
In a statement read by their attorney, Bernstein’s parents said: “Blaze wanted to make the world a better place. With his death, a beautiful light has been extinguished, and we encourage you to continue to shine his light through acts of loving kindness. By honoring Blaze’s memory, we hope you’ll make the world a better place.”