The killing of Blaze Bernstein, a gay college student from California, is believed to be a hate crime, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas announced on Thursday.
Prosecutors believe Samuel Woodward, 21, killed Bernstein over his sexuality after examining Woodward’s cellphone, computer and social media posts.
Rackauckas declined to specify the evidence discovered, but he said investigators found “a dark side” to Woodward showing “hatred to a lot of groups of people, basically every protected group.”
ProPublica reported that Woodward was a member of Atomwaffen Division, a violent white supremacist group that celebrates Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson and has been tied to four other killings, according to ProPublica.
“We have no room for this kind of hate in our society, and we hope Blaze’s memory will continue to burn bright as a symbol of love, understanding and acceptance,” Rackauckas said.
He said prosecutors plan to seek a hate crime sentencing enhancement for Woodward, who faces a separate sentencing enhancement for using a knife. The new enhancement would increase his potential sentence to life without the possibility of parole.
Woodward pleaded not guilty to murder. He is scheduled to appear in court for a preliminary hearing Aug. 22.
Bernstein was reported missing on Jan. 3 while he was on winter break from the University of Pennsylvania. On Jan. 9 his body was found in a shallow grave in a Lake Forest, California, park with multiple stab wounds.
Authorities say Woodward picked up Bernstein from his house late on Jan. 2 after they communicated on Snapchat. The two men, who had attended the same high school, drove to a shopping center parking lot in Foothill Ranch and later to the park, authorities said.
Investigators linked Bernstein’s death to Woodward via DNA evidence from his car and at the park. Detectives found “abrasions, scratches and dirt” on Woodward’s hands when they interviewed him in January, according to an affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register.
Woodward said Bernstein tried to kiss him on the lips that night, according to the affidavit. He also told investigators that he wanted to call Bernstein a “faggot.”