The body of Blaze Bernstein, a 19-year-old college student, has been found in brush surrounding Foothill Ranch Park. Photo from the Orange County Sheriffs Department.
The body of Blaze Bernstein, a 19-year-old college student, was found in brush surrounding Foothill Ranch Park. Photo from the Orange County Sheriffs Department.

Orange County prosecutors announced Thursday they have added a hate-crime allegation against the 21-year-old Newport Beach man charged with the January killing of a gay former high school classmate, Blaze Bernstein, whose body was found buried in a shallow grave at a Lake Forest park.

Samuel Lincoln Woodward was charged with murder earlier this year, but prosecutors did not immediately deem the killing a hate crime. 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 the 19-year-old Bernstein’s sexual orientation.

“We will prove Woodward killed Blaze because Blaze was gay,” District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said. “The evidence was developed by examining Woodward’s cell phone, laptop, social media and other digital evidence revealing the dark side of Woodward’s thoughts and intentions.”

The investigation is ongoing and Rackauckas solicited the public’s help linking Woodward to any associations with known hate groups so prosecutors can consider adding hate-crime allegations involving Bernstein’s Jewish heritage.

“We have no room for this kind of hate in our society,” Rackauckas said. “We hope Blaze’s memory will continue to burn bright as a symbol of love, understanding and acceptance.”

The victim’s parents, Jeanne and Gideon Bernstein, attended Thursday’s news conference.

“Today, we suffer an added layer of pain from learning he was likely killed because of who he was,” Gideon Bernstein said.

Jeanne Bernstein said, “We continue to walk in solidarity with the LGBQT community and all survivors of hate crimes and all people afraid to be who they are.”

She added, “We live in a world where hate is real and the people practicing it can be hiding in your child’s computer… We continue to Blaze it forward for Blaze and for you and continuing his legacy of improving the human condition one intentional act of kindness at a time.”

Woodward’s attorney, Ed Munoz, said he was disappointed in the filing of additional allegations.

“This is a complex case and the motivations each of the principals brought with them to that fateful meeting are multilayered and they’re really complicated, so I guess from the narrow or selective view of the evidence this amended filing is not completely shocking,” Munoz said. “However, from a more expansive view of the evidence this is a bit surprising. I and my client and of course his family are deeply disappointed with this development because we are aware of the different levels of complexity with each of these individuals.”

Woodward has been diagnosed with autism, Munoz said.

Rackauckas declined to comment when asked if there was any evidence Woodward was gay or bisexual.

Woodward is accused of fatally stabbing Bernstein, a University of Pennsylvania pre-med student 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.

Rackauckas said in January that Woodward picked up Bernstein from his parents’ Lake Forest home about 11 p.m. 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 allegedly stabbed Bernstein multiple times, then buried the body in a dirt perimeter at the park.

A search warrant affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register in January suggested Bernstein may have tried to kiss Woodward, who responded by killing him in an act of rage.

Rackauckas 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. A special-circumstance allegation could lead to a possible death sentence.

State Sen. Janet Nguyen, R-Garden Grove, attempted to introduce legislation to make hate crime murders motivated by sexual orientation eligible for the death penalty, but it died in committee as Democratic lawmakers pointed out that the lawmaker who crafted the legislation Nguyen was seeking to amend was a death penalty opponent and left out that punishment on purpose.

Nguyen said at the news conference she would continue working with prosecutors and trying to revive the legislation near the end of the legislative session this month or next year.

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