A 21-year-old Newport Beach man charged with killing his former high school classmate in what prosecutors allege was a hate crime because the victim was gay substituted defense attorneys Monday.
Samuel Lincoln Woodward’s attorney, Ed Munoz, stepped down and Robert F. Kohler of the Public Defender’s Office was appointed to represent him in his murder trial, Munoz said.
Munoz would not comment on the reasons why Woodward got a new attorney.
Woodward, who was scheduled to be arraigned Monday, was ordered to return to court for arraignment in November, Munoz said.
He is accused in the killing of Blaze Bernstein, a University of Pennsylvania pre-med student whose body was found in a shallow grave in Borrego Park in Lake Forest.
Bernstein was home on winter break when he was killed.
The murder charge against Woodward includes a hate crime allegation, meaning he could be sentenced to life in prison without parole if convicted. Woodward also faces a sentencing enhancement for allegedly using a knife in the killing of the 19-year-old victim.
Munoz previously has said that while prosecutors have painted a picture of his client as a gay-bashing defendant with ties to white supremacists, Woodward is a man afflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome and who has spent years conflicted about his sexuality.
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.
In Woodward’s preliminary hearing earlier this month, prosecutors revealed that the murder weapon was a folding knife inscribed with Woodward’s father’s name that was found in the defendant’s bedroom.
Investigators also found DNA evidence in Woodward’s 2017 Nissan Rogue that linked him to the stabbing, in the form of blood on the vehicle’s ceiling and on a sun visor, according to Corrie Maggay, a forensic scientist for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
Sheriff’s investigator Dylan Jantzen testified at the preliminary hearing that he first encountered Woodward two days after the murder at Borrego Park in Lake Forest, where a search had been ongoing for the missing Bernstein.
Woodward stuffed his hands “for the most part” in the pockets of a hoodie while talking to investigators, Jantzen testified. Later, investigators noticed during questioning of the defendant that he had “numerous cuts and scrapes” on his hands, Jantzen testified.
The wounds, he claimed to investigators, came from a fight-club sparring session in which his opponent “clawed” at him, Jantzen testified.
Woodward said he had contacted Bernstein through Snapchat and picked him up about 11 p.m. Jan. 2, Jantzen said.
The defendant told investigators he drove Bernstein to a parking lot of a Hobby Lobby store in Foothill Ranch, Jantzen said. The two talked about school and grades and Bernstein discussed his depression, he told investigators, according to Jantzen.
Woodward claimed he also talked about his girlfriends, Jantzen said.
Woodward told investigators “at first” there was “minor touching” such as a “caress on the shoulder” before Bernstein kissed Woodward on the lips, Jantzen said.
Woodward said he pushed Bernstein away and that he wanted to “call Blaze a (expletive) faggot,” Jantzen testified. Bernstein, according to Woodward’s statement to investigators, “apologized profusely,” and the two then agreed to go to the park, Jantzen testified.
According to the investigator, Woodward still “wanted to hang out” with Bernstein so long as the victim understood Woodward wasn’t interested in him romantically. Woodward told investigators he found Bernstein’s kiss “gross, disgusting,” but also said, “who am I to judge,” Jantzen said.
When they arrived at the park, Bernstein went into the woods, and Woodward waited for an hour before getting mad and leaving, Jantzen said. He went to a bathroom at the park to “wash the taste of Blaze’s mouth off” of him, then drove to meet a girlfriend, Donna, at a park where they “made out” for one to two hours under a gazebo, Jantzen testified. Woodward couldn’t remember her address in Tustin and the number he gave to investigators was wrong, Jantzen said.
Woodward then said he became “concerned” about Bernstein and returned to the park about 3:40 a.m., Jantzen testified.
Woodward admitted he lived in San Antonio, Texas, during summer 2017 about the same time there was a three-day camp organized by the Atomwaffen white supremacist group, Jantzen testified. Woodward said he was working in a sheet metal job, the investigator said.
Woodward also acknowledged to investigators he had an account on Tinder, a dating site in which he indicated an interest in men and women, but he claimed his interest in men was not romantic, Jantzen testified. Woodward denied having an account on Grinder, a gay dating website, Jantzen said.
Under questioning from Woodward’s attorney, Ed Munoz, Jantzen said the defendant told investigators, “He was kind of a lonely person.”
Woodward also admitted he had thoughts of “experimenting” with the same sex, but emphasized he was not gay, Jantzen said.
A gay classmate from the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, where Woodward was a student through the 10th grade, told investigators how Woodward initially approached him with questions about homosexuality, claiming to be asking for someone else, Jantzen said. Ultimately, the online correspondence between the two graduated to Woodward sending him illicit photos, Jantzen said.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Steve McGreevy told Orange County Superior Court Judge Karen Robinson that the defendant had emails on his phone indicating he wished to trick homosexuals by feigning interest in them.
Munoz argued that all of Woodward’s emails containing offensive content were sent to himself.
McGreevy said investigators found homophobic and Atomwaffen-related material on the defendant’s computer devices.
McGreevy said Bernstein was stabbed about 20 times. Woodward buried the body in a dirt perimeter at the park, which is near the home of the victim’s parents, according to District Attorney Tony Rackauckas.
Bernstein’s body was found about a week later following a highly publicized search.