Orange County officials identified the suspect in the Blaze Bernstein murder case as his high school friend Samuel Lincoln Woodward

By Alexia Fernandez
January 12, 2018 08:47 PM

California officials have identified the suspect in the case of University of Pennsylvania sophomore Blaze Bernstein, who went missing during his winter break and was found dead earlier this week.

During a press conference Friday evening, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department named Bernstein’s high school friend Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 20, as the suspect in the case.

Woodward, of Newport Beach, California, was arrested about 1:15 p.m. Friday on suspicion of homicide, according to Undersheriff Don Barnes. He told reporters a motive for the crime is unknown and that the investigation is ongoing.

Samuel Lincoln Woodward (left) was named a suspect in the killing of his high school friend Blaze Bernstein
Ken Steinhardt/The Orange County Register via ZUMA

Barnes said the Bernstein family allowed authorities access to Blaze’s social media accounts, including Snapchat, which led investigators to Woodward.

Woodward was interviewed by investigators and said they were meeting another friend at Borrego Park in Lake Forest, California, where Bernstein’s body was eventually found in a “shallow grave,” according to Barnes.

Woodward allegedly told investigators that upon arriving at the park, Blaze walked off by himself and that an hour later Woodward could not find him. Woodward claimed he left the park but returned an hour later to attempt to locate Blaze. When he did not, he told police he left.

“Based on inconsistencies in [Woodward’s account], our investigators focused on this individual in the homicide of Blaze,” Barnes said, adding Woodward has been under surveillance “for some time” before his arrest on Friday.

Blaze Bernstein
Help Us Find Blaze Bernstein/Facebook

“How well they were friends in high school we do not know,” Barnes said. “We don’t know why they were at the park. There was a reference to a third person by Woodward [but] we suspect he was acting alone.”

Barnes said Woodward and Blaze had driven to “multiple locations” before arriving at Borrego Park. While he would not divulge details as to where the two stopped, Barnes said Woodward “has been cooperating with police,” although he has not confessed to the crime.

How Bernstein died will not be released until the autopsy report is finalized. Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas told reporters that charges were still pending for Woodward, but they could be filed as early as Tuesday.

It was unclear if Woodward has retained an attorney who could comment on his behalf.

From left: the parents of Blaze Bernstein, Jeanne Pepper and Gideon Bernstein
Leonard Ortiz/The Orange County Register via ZUMA Wire

The attorney for the Bernstein family made a statement on their behalf on Friday, saying, “We will continue to search for justice for Blaze and his family.”

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“Our words cannot express how grateful our family is for their community… for expressing their love and support during this past very difficult week,” the statement read.

When news of Woodward’s arrest came, a Twitter account from an account purported to be the account of Blaze’s mother, Jeanne Pepper, tweeted an emotional statement.

“Finally. My thoughts are: Revenge is empty. It will never bring back my son,” she wrote. “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. Now Do Good for Blaze Bernstein.”

Bernstein was found dead on Tuesday around 2 p.m. in the brush along the perimeter of Borrego Park.

His family had reported him missing on Jan. 3 after he didn’t make a dental appointment. He was home from college on winter break and was scheduled to return to school that coming Sunday.

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“[His family] had seen him the evening before and they had dinner together and they all went their respective ways for the evening,” Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, told PEOPLE.

“The parents shared in the morning they thought he was just sleeping in, and in the afternoon he missed his dental appointment and that is when they started to become concerned and they reached out to us shortly after that,” she said.

Bernstein’s father, Gideon, told reporters on Friday that his son had just become the managing editor of Penn Appétit, a food magazine at the University of Pennsylvania.

“He was very excited about that,” Gideon said, according to the Orange County Register. “He was working on that over the winter break and showed us the magazine they just published, which he significantly contributed to.”

Gideon said his son intended to declare a major in psychology with a minor in chemistry, “pursuing it with a pre-med focus.”

“Nineteen years old,” said Braun. “It is just so sad.”