A high school classmate of University of Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein, whose body was found Tuesday near Borrego Park, reportedly was the last known person to have seen him alive and “appeared nervous when interviewed by detectives.”
Orange County sheriff’s officials said the body was found about 2 p.m. Tuesday in some brush surrounding Foothill Ranch park, which is adjacent to Borrego Park. An autopsy was performed Wednesday, but no details have been released on the cause of death or the condition of the body.
Sheriff’s officials said a homicide investigation is underway.
According to the Orange County Register, a 16-page search warrant affidavit filed by a sheriff’s investigator shed some light on Bernstein’s disappearance and the friend who reportedly drove him that night to Borrego Park.
According to the affidavit:
The friend, who attended Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana with Bernstein, told detectives that he spoke with him on SnapChat that night. He agreed to pick up Bernstein and they drove to the parking lot of a Hobby Lobby in Lake Forest to “hang out” and “catch up.”
He said Bernstein then told him they were going to meet up with another friend from high school, and they arrived at the Borrego Park parking area shortly before midnight on Jan. 2, a Tuesday. He said Blaze exited the vehicle and walked by himself into the park.
The friend said he waited for about an hour and tried to contact him on SnapChat. He said he then left at around 1 a.m. and drove to his girlfriend’s house in Tustin and then returned to the park at about 3:40 a.m. after Bernstein still had not responded. The friend said Bernstein had complained about his grades in school and “seemed depressed but never said anything about wanting to hurt himself.”
On Jan, 4, two days after the teenager disappeared, detectives spoke with the friend again at Borrego Park and noticed that his hands had several small scratches and abrasions. The friend said the scratches and abrasions were from a “fight club” that he was involved in.
Investigators also noticed what appeared to be “dirt under the fingernails” on both of the friend’s hands. They asked him how his hands got so dirty and the friend said he “fell into a dirt puddle” during the sparring session.
Detectives noticed that the friend was nervous and was “breathing heavy, talking fast and visibly shaking.”
At one point, the friend opened the doors to his rental car and allowed two detectives to look inside. The detectives noticed hiking and camping equipment in the rear of the vehicle, a large empty plastic bin on the backseat, and a black belt on the passenger seat floorboard.
The friend agreed to be further interviewed at the sheriff’s headquarters in Santa Ana, where his story “stayed fairly consistent.” But, the affidavit says, while he had told investigators that he went to his girlfriend’s home after he left Bernstein in the park, he said he could not remember her last name and did not know where she lived.
“On their way out of Sheriff’s Headquarters, (investigators) noticed every door (the friend) had to touch on the way out of the building he pulled his jacket over his hand to prevent his hand and fingers from touching any part of the doors he touched.”
A sheriff’s spokeswoman, declined to comment on the affidavit.
No suspects were in custody, and investigators asked anyone with information to contact the sheriff’s department at (714) 647-7000.
Bernstein, who was visiting his family while on winter break from the University of Pennsylvania, went missing after going to Borrego Park with a friend to meet another person, said Annee Della Donna, an attorney and friend of the family.
He had sent a text message at 9:30 p.m. Jan. 2 with his family’s Lake Forest address for a high school buddy to pick him up and take him to the park to meet a third person, she said. The park is five minutes away from the family home and Bernstein and his friend got there at 10:30 p.m., the attorney said. Bernstein went off alone into the park while his friend waited back in the car, she said.
Bernstein’s friend eventually began sending text messages to him when he didn’t return, but did not hear back from him, she said. The friend left and then returned at 4 a.m. to look for Bernstein again.
Eventually, the location device on Bernstein’s phone stopped functioning and the phone was turned off, Della Donna said.
“He didn’t have anything with him,” she said. “He didn’t have his glasses or his medication. He didn’t bring his wallet or a phone charger. I don’t think he planned on this being a long trip and he just disappeared.”
The victim’s father, Gideon, “could not stop crying” when informed of his son’s death, Della Donna said.
“They’re just devastated,” she said of the family.
Gideon Bernstein struggled to control his emotions as he spoke to reporters Wednesday afternoon, but he called his son “a brilliant, colorful and charismatic man who shined light on all of the lives of the people and communities that he touched.”
“Needless to say, our family is devastated by the news,” he said. “We like so many of you around the world loved Blaze, and we wanted nothing more than to see his safe return. We want to thank all of you who so generously gave us all your hearts, your time and your energy to help us in the search for Blaze over this past week.”
He urged people to continue providing tips and information to sheriff’s investigators.
—City News Service
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