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Closing arguments continue in murder trial of gay Jewish college student

Blaze Bernstein and Samuel Woodward
Orange County Register

Samuel Woodward, an accused neo-Nazi, has admitted his guilt but denies the killing of Blaze Bernstein was premeditated.

Closing arguments continued this week in the trial of Samuel Woodward, the alleged neo-Nazi accused of killing gay Jewish university student Blaze Bernstein in 2018.

Woodward, now 26 but who was 20 at the time of the murder, is facing murder and hate crime charges for the stabbing death of Bernstein, a 19-year-old student at the University of Pennsylvania who was home on holiday visiting family in Lake Forest at the time of his death on January 2, 2018.

Prosecutors told the court that Woodward, a reported member of the neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division, plotted to kill Bernstein because he was gay and Jewish. The defense claimed the killing was spontaneous and called Woodward to testify in his defense.

Woodward admitted to stabbing Bernstein to death but disputed the killing was premeditated. Instead, he claimed he had passed out after smoking marijuana and woke up to find Bernstein taking pictures of his exposed genitals and threatening to out him to their mutual friends.

He claimed he snapped but his memory was selective, unable to answer prosecution questions under cross-examination regarding details of the killing.

Bernstein’s 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.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors had tried to show Woodward was obsessed with neo-Nazi and white supremacist ideologies, but the defense countered with an expert witness who met with Woodward shortly after his arrest and earlier this year before the trial, the Orange County Register reported. Martha Rogers, described as a psychological expert, testified Woodward had grown disillusioned with the group and its racist ideology after he returned home to Newport Beach following a failed attempt to live in Texas with members of the Atomwaffen group.

“It was wearing thin and didn’t match up to the thoughts he had of what it would be, where he would have this great camaraderie and be uplifted as a man and become stronger and better,” Rogers testified at trial last month. “It somehow didn’t seem to match his expectations. He grew tired of it.”

Senior Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker disputed that Woodward had turned his back on the group and its ideology, noting the man had thousands of Atomowaffen-type images on his phone at the time of his arrest and that reported extremist materials were found in his cell during a search in 2020.

“After the crime, in jail, he had doodles about Atomwaffen in his cell,” Walker claimed.

Woodward appeared unkempt and nearly catatonic during the trial, and his testimony was inconsistent.

Under cross-examination Woodward admitted he had created a Grindr profile that read “All fags and fakes are in for it, get ready to die.” The rest of his testimony was filled with an inability to remember key details of the murder, the Orange County Registerreported.

Woodward also denied being gay and claimed the selfies he sent were found online, even though the background in some of the pics matched the tile in his bathroom.

He replied "I can't remember" when asked how he could stab Bernstein 14 times on the left side of the neck when he was seated next to him, and he used the same response when asked how he could also stab the gay university student five times on the right side of his next from the same seated position.

Woodward denied he was an anti-Semitic neo-Nazi despite his alleged membership in the Atomwaffen group and even when he was confronted with a picture of himself in an Atomwaffen group mask and doing the Nazi straight-arm salute.

“That is a skull mask,” Woodward said in response. “As for the salute, that is a completely different story.”

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 reportedly 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.

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 his friend 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.

One of the last messages he sent was a cryptic text that said he had “done something horrible” possibly just before he was killed.

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.

Closing arguments continue this week.

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