“He had a glow about him,” his mother, Jeanne Pepper Bernstein tells PEOPLE. “He was in a good place. He was really happy"
On Jan. 2., the last night of Blaze Bernstein’s life, he was as happy as his parents had ever seen him.
“He had a glow about him,” his mother, Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, tells PEOPLE. “He was in a good place. He was really happy. He was shining.”
Blaze was so ebullient because he loved his life as a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, where he was planning to study pre-med, she says.
While he enjoyed spending time with his family in Lake Forest, California, for winter break, whipping up gourmet meals for his parents and taking part in frequent rounds of Balderdash on the family’s many game nights, “he couldn’t wait to get back,” she says. “He got a new apartment. He had so much to look forward to when he got there.”
Blaze would never make it back to school. Later that night, he met a former classmate from high school — Samuel Woodward, 20 — and never returned home, say police.
Six days after his parents reported him missing, his lifeless body was found on Jan. 9 in a shallow grave at nearby Borrego Park. On Friday, Woodward was arrested on suspicion of homicide. On Wednesday, he was charged with murder and faces a maximum sentence of life in prison if he is convicted.
Blaze’s death has left his family devastated. “We are all sad,” says his mother. “We are all crying. The whole world is crying right now.”
While authorities have not revealed much about why Blaze met Woodward the night of Jan. 2 or what led to the alleged stabbing, a search warrant affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register, which has since been sealed, Woodward alleges that Blaze tried to kiss him and Woodward subsequently away.
Blaze’s parents say they knew their son was gay and accepted that. “We told him we are all God’s children,” his father, Gideon Bernstein tells PEOPLE. “We told him, ‘We love you and want you to have a good life and be happy.’
“His sexual identity was no different than his other identities – being Jewish or male or a poet or a writer or a chef,” he says. “He didn’t want one to be overriding the other. That is what he communicated to us.”
“Everybody knew but he really didn’t like talking about it.”
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The Bernsteins remember their son as a “Renaissance man” who loved traveling to far-flung locales including Iceland, Israel, and Italy with his family.
His interests were wide. He loved writing, cooking, and photography. “I bought him this book on interior decorating and he was so excited to have it,” she says.
“He was a scholar in all things,” says Jeanne. “Art, literature, and science.”
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She also marveled at watching him grow into a man, she says. “I knew he was becoming an adult when he stopped tattling on (his younger sister) and started to enjoy her,” says Jeanne. “That started to happen about the time he left for college. If he didn’t like something she was doing, he wouldn’t come to me and complain. He would go to her and ask her nicely to stop doing it. It finally clicked with him. He was an adult. He could relate to her.”
The family has asked that contributions be made to the Blaze Bernstein Memorial Fund at the Jewish Community Foundation Orange County to help children and families in need.