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Samuel Woodward describes how he stabbed former classmate Blaze Bernstein to death

Sean Emery, The Orange County Register on

Published in News & Features

SANTA ANA, Calif. — Samuel Woodward testified Thursday to feeling “anger like nothing I had ever felt in my whole life” as he repeatedly stabbed his former classmate Blaze Bernstein in a Lake Forest park before burying Bernstein with “my own bare hands.”

Woodward, in a dramatic culmination of his fourth day of testimony in a Santa Ana courtroom, described violently killing Bernstein after he claimed Bernstein touched his genitals. Woodward testified that he was worried Bernstein had taken an explicit photo of him and was texting it to other people, leading him to first try to grab Bernstein’s cell phone and then to attack him.

“I just kept driving and driving and driving the knife down,” Woodward testified.

“When you say driving the knife down, Sam, were you stabbing Blaze?” Assistant Public Defender Ken Morrison asked.

“At that point, yes I was,” Woodward answered, as Bernstein’s mother abruptly rushed out of the courtroom.

Do you have a memory of how many times you were stabbing Blaze?” Morrison said.

“No,” Woodward replied.

“What were you thinking?” The defense attorney asked. “Do you remember what you were thinking when you were driving the knife down again and again and again?”

“Anger like nothing I had ever felt in my whole life,” Woodward said.

Woodward’s testimony was far different than the story he told police and Bernstein’s family at the time of Bernstein’s disappearance and slaying in January 2018. At that time, Woodward admitted meeting Bernstein at the park, but claimed Bernstein had walked off to meet another person whose identity Woodward did not know. Though it hasn’t been mentioned during his murder trial, Woodward at one point also claimed to police that Bernstein tried to kiss him, leading Woodward to push him away.

That Woodward, then 20, killed 19-year-old Bernstein — a former Orange County School of the Arts classmate — hasn’t been disputed during his murder trial. But the defense has denied the prosecutions’ contention that Woodward carried out the slaying because Bernstein was gay. A hate crime would carry a lengthier sentence.

Woodward grew up in a conservative, religious family, is on the Autism spectrum and was a social outcast at OCSA, according to trial testimony, where his more conservative beliefs and at-times apparently homophobic comments were at odds with his more liberal classmates.

In the years since their shared time at OCSA, Bernstein had enrolled as a pre-med student at the University of Pennsylvania, while Woodward had dropped out of college, moved to Texas to train with Atomwaffen Division — a Neo-Nazi extremist group — and then moved back in with his parents in Newport Beach.

The prosecution has argued that Woodward’s beliefs led him to target Bernstein due to his sexuality. The defense has countered by describing Woodward as being confused about his own sexuality, though Woodward has seemingly denied that during his testimony.

Woodward previously said that in January 2018 he reached out to Bernstein — who was visiting family in Lake Forest on winter break — because he was looking for someone to hang out with, adding that Bernstein suggested they meet up that night. His previous testimony ended with the two sitting on a bench at Borrego Park, walking back to Woodward’s car.

Woodward, in his testimony on Thursday, June 20, said he grabbed a bag of snacks he had taken from home along with a sleeping bag he kept in his car with marijuana paraphernalia in it and walked with Bernstein back into the park.

The two spoke and joked about their high school experiences, Woodward said, and commiserated with each other about their challenges at college. Woodward described rolling a joint and taking a couple of puffs of marijuana. Asked what effect it had on him that night, Woodward recalled that it “mostly felt like I was listening to a bunch of music.”

As a relaxed feeling came over him, Woodward testified that he closed his eyes, “tuned out” and began to nod off. Woodward said he felt Bernstein move close to him, but thought Bernstein was getting something out of the bag.

Woodward said he felt “something somewhat close” to his leg, which led him to worry that he had urinated on himself. When he opened his eyes, Woodward testified, his pants were unbuckled and Bernstein had one hand on his crotch and the other holding a cell phone.

“When I looked at him and I saw him and I saw the light of the phone and I realized what he had in his hand, I just — I went and I just — I just came undone,” Woodward said. “I went in a state of terror. I remember just asking, ‘What are you doing, what are you doing?’ I just remember asking again and again, ‘What are you doing?’ “

“I can’t remember if he said something like ‘Calm down’ or ‘It’s not a big deal,’ ” Woodward added. “He kept telling me something that sounded like ‘It is already done” and “I got you, I got you.’”

 

Woodward described himself as “babbling incoherently.” He claimed Bernstein said something to him like “I got you, you (expletive) hypocrite” while also possibly using the word “outed.”

Woodward appeared reluctant to discuss exactly where Bernstein had touched him. He described it as his “inner thigh,” before adding, following repeated clarification questions from the defense attorney, that Bernstein was also touching his penis. Asked if Bernstein had rubbed or stroked him, Woodward replied that he couldn’t remember.

According to Woodward’s testimony, he was in “mortal terror” after seeing Bernstein tapping on his cell phone. He said he was worried that Bernstein had sent an explicit photo of him to someone else.

“What were you afraid of?” The defense attorney asked.

“My father — there is no way people like him, people in our community, people in our neighborhood — just the look on his face if he heard about something like that, if it got out somehow,” Woodward said. “I couldn’t fathom something like that.”

Woodward said he began yelling at Bernstein at the top of his lungs. He described reaching for Bernstein’s phone in a rage, while also grabbing a knife he had used to open a container of marijuana.

Woodward said he couldn’t recall how many times he stabbed Bernstein or what, if anything, Bernstein was saying at that point.

“I only remember trying to get the phone and during that time and the ensuing tumble I just remember I felt nothing other than being clawed and bitten,” Woodward said.

In his testimony, Woodward said he recalled little about the aftermath of the killing, though he acknowledged burying Bernstein among vegetation at the edge of the park, where Bernstein was found six days later.

“Everything was just one big flood,” Woodward said. “I just remember losing my mind. I remember not knowing what to do.”

Woodward denied that he planned to kill Bernstein that night, that the killing had anything to do with Atomwaffen, or that it was due to Bernstein being gay or Jewish.

Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Walker had little time at the end of Thursday to question Woodward about his description of the killing. But the prosecutor noted that Woodward sent messages to Bernstein’s phone afterward that made it sound like Bernstein had walked off and never returned.

“You killed Blaze, you buried him and then you were going to continue to cover up the crime?” Walker asked.

“That wasn’t my intention, no,” Woodward replied.

As he had over the previous three days of testimony, Woodward repeatedly took lengthy pauses — at times with his eyes appearing closed — before responding to his attorney’s question, at times taking up to 30 seconds before answering. Morrison repeatedly asked Woodward to pick his head up, sweep his hair away from his face and look at either the attorney or the jury.

Woodward also had to be repeatedly prodded by his attorney to move forward with his narrative of what happened the night of the killing.

“Do you believe Blaze Bernstein deserved to die that night?” Morrison asked at one point.

“No,” Woodward answered.

Woodward is scheduled to return to the stand for more questioning by the prosecutor on Monday morning.

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