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Parents of killed college student not focused on motive

This undated file photo provided by the Orange County Sheriff's Department shows Blaze Bernstein. (Associated Press)
This undated file photo provided by the Orange County Sheriff's Department shows Blaze Bernstein. (Associated Press)
By Amy Taxin Associated Press

SANTA ANA, Calif. – The parents of a University of Pennsylvania student found stabbed and buried in a California park said Thursday they’re not focused on potential motives for the killing or any suggestions their son was attacked because he was gay.

A former high school classmate was charged Wednesday with murder in the death of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein. Samuel Woodward, 20, killed Bernstein with a knife, prosecutors said, while the college sophomore was visiting his family on winter break.

Speaking on NBC’s “Today” show, Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper Bernstein would not elaborate on previous comments they made that the killing may have been a hate crime.

“If we talk about these things now then this young man will not get a fair trial. And I want that. I want that for all of us. I want the legal system to work,” Jeanne Pepper Bernstein said.

District Attorney Tony Rackauckus said prosecutors were still trying to determine a motive for the killing and looking into whether it was a hate crime.

According to a court filing obtained by the Orange County Register, Woodward told investigators that he became angry after Bernstein kissed him the night they went to the park.

Authorities said Woodward picked up Bernstein at his parents’ home around 11 p.m. on Jan. 2 after they communicated on Snapchat and took him to a neighborhood park. His body was found in a shallow grave there a week later.

Desperate to find him, his parents learned their son had left the house by “hacking into his computer and getting into his social media account,” Jeanne Pepper Bernstein told the Los Angeles Times Wednesday.

“Most people our age don’t understand how much our children are using social media for communicating,” Gideon Bernstein said.

Woodward appeared in court in an orange jail jumpsuit but did not enter a plea. He was ordered held without bail until his arraignment on Feb. 2.

If convicted of murder and an allegation he used a deadly weapon, Woodward could face as much as 26 years to life in prison.

“There is still much discovery to be done and if it is determined that this was a hate crime, we will cry not only for our son, but for LGBTQ people everywhere that live in fear or who have been victims of hate crime,” Bernstein’s family said in a statement earlier this week.

Woodward’s parents held hands at Wednesday’s hearing and sat with a Catholic priest who is a long-time friend of the family. Other church members also attended the brief hearing.

“This is a tragedy,” defense attorney Edward Munoz said later to reporters. He said his heart goes out to Bernstein family and that the Woodward family is in shock.

“This young man I’m representing was an Eagle Scout and now he’s facing murder,” Munoz said.

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