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Accused neo-Nazi's trial begins in connection to killing of gay Jewish college student Blaze Bernstein

young gay Jewish student Blaze Bernstein murder trial begins Samuel Woodward reported member neoNazi group Atomwaffen Division
facebook groups @blazeitforward; Paul Bersebach/Orange County Register via Getty Images

The trial was delayed in February after the accused neo-Nazi killer threw water at the judge.

The opening statements in the trial of the man accused of murdering a young gay Jewish student, Blaze Bernstein, in an Orange County park are scheduled for delivery in a California courtroom on Tuesday. Prosecutors are seeking a hate crime enhancement to the murder charge.

Samuel Woodward, now 26, a reported member of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, is accused of stabbing Bernstein to death and burying his body in a park early in January 2018. Bernstein, a 19-year-old student at UPenn, was home on holiday visiting family in Lake Forest when he was killed. His body was found the following week on January 9 buried in a shallow grave in Borrego Park in the Foothill Ranch neighborhood. An autopsy revealed he had been stabbed about 20 times.

Woodward became an immediate suspect in the case. The two young men had communicated on the night of Bernstein’s disappearance, and investigators questioned Woodward after encountering him days later in Borrego Park. At the time, Woodward admitted he had been with Bernstein on the evening he went missing, saying he became angry and the pair split up after Bernstein tried to kiss him.

At the time, police noted Woodward had dirt under his fingernails and scratches on his arms. They later reportedly found in his possession a knife and sleeping bag stained with Bernstein’s blood.

Bernstein was out, and was known for his writing abilities and fondness of cooking. He was the managing editor of his school's cooking magazine, Penn Apetít.

Although not friends, Bernstein and Woodward had together attended the Orange County School for the Arts, a public charter school for artistically gifted students. Bernstein excelled as a writer at the school while Woodward was known as a loner who sought to offend and intimidate others.

Woodward identified as a member of the neo-Nazi online group Atomwaffen Division as early as 2016, according to Pro Publica. He reportedly traveled to Texas to attend a three-day training program in hand-to-hand combat, firearms, outdoor survival tactics, and more. His social media was reportedly littered with anti-LGBTQ+, racist, and anti-Semitic posts.

One of the group’s founding members was charged with murdering his two roommates and group members in 2018. A dispute allegedly broke out between the three men after the reported killer, 18-year-old Devon Arthurs, converted to Islam.

Bernstein and Woodward allegedly communicated online prior to meeting in person on January 2. Despite his extremist views, rumors had swirled at OCSA about Woodward’s sexual identity, with many suspecting he was gay and in the closet. Bernstein found his profile on a dating app, “superliked” Woodward’s photo, and the pair soon started chatting.

Bernstein told friends of the conversation in real-time, according to a report in 2019 from Mother Jones, coaxing Woodward into revealing his gay sexual identity.

“Oh shit, he’s about to hit on me,” Bernstein messaged a friend named Alex. “He had me promise not to tell anyone…but I have texted everyone uh oh.”

Investigators say the pair agreed to meet up later that evening with Woodward driving. Bernstein met Woodward in his cul-de-sac around 11 p.m. on January 2. He was wearing sweatpants and a T-shirt and left behind his glasses and wallet leading investigators to believe the student intended only to be out a short while.

Around 11:30 p.m. Bernstein texted a friend named Lily with an update during the meetup.

“The gist of it was, ‘You won’t believe what’s happening right now,’” Lily told Mother Jones.

Bernstein never came home but his parents were not worried until he missed a dentist appointment later that day, as he was known for his punctuality.

His body was found the following week.

Woodward has pleaded not guilty in the case. Jury selection had begun in February, but the proceedings were quickly suspended after Woodward tossed water from a glass at the judge.

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