A nervous, “visibly shaking” young man was arrested Friday in connection with the killing of a 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania student who went missing and was found dead in a Lake Forest park after a weeklong search.
Sam Lincoln Woodward, 20, was arrested around 1:15 p.m. near his residence in Newport Beach in connection with the death of Blaze Bernstein, according to Orange County Undersheriff Don Barnes. Woodward and Bernstein were friends and former classmates at Orange County School for the Arts.
Officials told a news conference that DNA evidence tied Woodward to the case, but they declined to offer a motive or a cause of death.
Bernstein’s parents had never heard of Woodward, said Annee Della Donna, an attorney and friend of the Bernstein family. Woodward allegedly drove Bernstein to Borrego Park about 11 p.m. Jan. 2. Bernstein’s body was found at the park Tuesday afternoon.
Woodward told investigators as they searched for Bernstein that the victim had gone to meet with a third person in the park, Barnes said.
“We do believe Mr. Woodward was acting alone,” Barnes said.
Barnes declined to release any details about Bernstein’s cause of death, saying final autopsy results were still pending. He also would not discuss the condition of Bernstein’s body, which was found in a shallow grave in some brush.
Barnes said a motive for the killing is still under investigation. He said Woodward was arrested based on inconsistencies in his comments to investigators. Investigators also have DNA tying Woodward to the crime, Barnes said, but he declined to provide specifics.
Sheriff’s homicide Sgt. Don Voght said it appears Woodward altered his appearance somewhat during the search and investigation.
It was unclear how well Woodward and Bernstein knew each other in high school, or the nature of their relationship, Barnes said.
“As a parent myself, I put myself in the shoes of the Bernsteins and can’t imagine the grief they must now face,” he said.
Barnes said Bernstein was at his family’s Lake Forest home on winter break from Penn. The family realized he was missing Jan. 3 when he missed a dentist appointment and would not answer text messages or phone calls. His wallet, credit cards, glasses and cash were all found in his room.
Investigators were led to Woodward after accessing Bernstein’s Snapchat account, Barnes said.
Della Donna read a statement from the family, saying in part, “Blaze wanted to make the world a better place. With his death, a beautiful life has been extinguished.”
“We will continue to search for justice for Blaze and his family,” she said. “Our words cannot express how grateful the family is to the community here in Orange County and all over the world for expressing their love and support during the past very difficult week.”
Bernstein’s mother, Jeanne Pepper, responded to news of the arrest on Twitter, writing, “Finally. 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.”
According to a search warrant affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register, Woodward told sheriff’s investigators he drove Bernstein to the park, who got out and walked away. He said he waited about an hour and tried to contact Bernstein on Snapchat. He said he left the park 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 Bernstein disappeared, detectives spoke with Woodward again at Borrego Park and noticed that his hands had several small scratches and abrasions, according to the affidavit obtained by the Register. He 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 Woodward’s hands, according to the affidavit. 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 he was nervous during the interview and was “breathing heavy, talking fast and visibly shaking.”
At one point, Woodward opened the doors to his rental car and allowed two detectives to look inside, according to the affidavit. 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.
He 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.”
–City News Service
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