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Alleged neo-Nazi found guilty in California murder of gay Jewish student Blaze Bernstein

Samuel Woodward convicted murder reported member neo-Nazi group Atomwaffen Division victim young gay Jewish student Blaze Bernstein
Leonard Ortiz/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images, Pool; via

The jury took only eight hours to convict Samuel Woodward on all counts.

A jury in Orange County on Wednesday found alleged neo-Nazi Samuel Woodward guilty of the gruesome stabbing murder of out gay Jewish university Blaze Bernstein in 2018, Forward and other media outlets reported.

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Woodward, 26, was found guilty of the first-degree murder of his former high school classmate Bernstein, 19, who was home visiting family on a holiday break from the University of Pennsylvania where he was a student. The jury also found the murder to be a hate crime.

Woodward was stabbed to death on January 2, 2018. Bernstein’s body was found the following week on January 9 buried in a shallow grave in Borrego Park in the Foothill Ranch neighborhood. The court heard he had been stabbed 28 times.

The three-month trial was delayed for years, but it took the jury only around eight hours of deliberation to return the verdict. With the combined conviction, Woodward now faces life in prison without the possibility of parole. He faced a minimum of 16 years in prison if convicted only on manslaughter, which the defense argued at trial.

Cheers erupted in the courtroom from the family and friends of Bernstein as the verdicts were announced.

“The verdict brings a measure of closure to a six-and-a-half-year chapter, but it cannot erase the pain of losing our son and the agony of waiting all of these years without resolution,” Blaze’s mother Jeanne Pepper Bernstein told the media following the verdict. “Now with the verdict in hand, we believe that justice has been served and Blaze’s memory will be honored through this outcome.”

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. They presented Woodward’s homophobic “hate diary” which contained drawings and anti-LGBTQ+ language, and described plots to lure gay men to hookups only to threaten them with hate crimes.

The defense claimed the killing was spontaneous while he was high on strong marijuana, that he had grown disillusioned with the neo-Nazi group, and was struggling with his own sexual identity. Woodward testified in his defense, appearing nearly catatonic and unkempt. His long brown hair and beard obscured much of his face and he took excruciatingly long pauses before answering questions.

Woodward described how the two former high school classmates at the Orange County School of the Arts matched on Tinder in July of 2017. Woodward reportedly flirted but denied he was gay and asked Berstein to keep their conversation private. Bernstein, however, was telling their mutual friends of the conversation in real-time. When Bernstein couldn't meet up that evening, he claimed he wasn't gay and it was all an exercise in determining how gay men respond to compliments.

The pair reconnected again six months later in January of 2018. They moved their conversation to Snapchat. When Woodward suggested the pair hang out that evening, this time Bernstein responded that he was free and provided his home address. Woodward testified he drove to Bernstein’s house with a sleeping bag, snacks, drinks, and marijuana, and that pair then drove to Borrego Park at Bernstein’s suggestion.

Woodward said he passed out after taking a few hits of marijuana and that he could not recall the specific chronology of what was said and happened next. He testified awoke to discover Bernstein had allegedly undone his pants, and had his penis in one hand while holding his cell phone in the other hand as if taking pictures of his genitalia.

Bernstein reportedly told Woodward to “Calm down, it’s not a big deal” and also “I got you, you f*cking hypocrite.”

Woodward said a struggle ensued for the phone and that he stabbed Bernstein repeatedly, destroying the phone as well. He explained that he feared Bernstein had sent the photo to friends, and feared if his father or racist friends were to learn of the picture and encounter.

He said he experienced “anger like nothing I’d ever felt in my entire life” during the attack.

Woodward was less forthcoming in his cross-examination testimony, which was filled with factual inconsistencies. He denied being gay. He claimed the selfies he sent to Bernstein, another former high school classmate, and a man he met on a dating app while in college were found online even though the background in one of the pics matched the tile in his college bathroom. Both men testified at trial. The out former high school classmate testified that Woodward also contacted him at the same time he contacted Bernstein, but that he had ignored the attempt.

Woodward also claimed he did not kill Bernstein because he was Jewish and gay despite admitting 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. 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 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 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.

Despite his extremist views, rumors had swirled at OCSA about Woodward’s sexual identity, with many suspecting he was gay and in the closet.

When Bernstein found his profile on a dating app, he “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.

Bernstein sent two cryptic texts to Lily possibly just moments before he was killed.

“I did something really horrible for the story,” he wrote in the first text.

“But also no one can ever know,” he wrote in the second and last text.

Bernstein did not respond to Lily’s repeated follow-up texts.

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.

State prosecutor Jennifer Walker attacked Woodward’s testimony in her closing arguments. She also provided her theory on how the murder took place. Noting that several knife wounds on Bernstein’s shirt did not match the stab wounds on his torso, she speculated Woodward had lured the student from the bench where he claimed the murder took place to a more secluded spot in the foliaged area where his body was discovered. She speculated that Woodward first stabbed Bernstein in the neck as he was undressing.

Walker said the totality of the evidence convicted Woodward.

“When you look at the joining of the group, the propaganda on his devices, the escalation of his communications to himself, the communications with Blaze Bernstein, the warnings from his parents not to engage in this type of behavior, it all adds up,” Walker said to media following the verdict.

Woodward is scheduled to be sentenced on October 25.

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