SANTA ANA, Calif. (AP) – A Southern California man pleaded not guilty Friday to the murder of a University of Pennsylvania student whose body was found buried in a shallow grave at a park not far from his family’s home.
Samuel Woodward, 20, of Newport Beach was ordered held on $5 million bail with conditions including GPS monitoring, a curfew and a protective order for the victim’s family if he is released.
Woodward is charged in the killing of 19-year-old college sophomore Blaze Bernstein, who was home visiting his family on winter break in Lake Forest. Authorities said the two attended the same high school but did not know if they were friends at the time.
Bernstein was missing for a week after going out with Woodward the night of Jan. 2. Police searched for him with drone pilots and found his body at a park in the community 50 miles (80 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles after rain partially exposed it.
Bernstein was killed with a knife. He was gay and Jewish and authorities are investigating the possibility of a hate crime.
During a brief hearing on Friday, defense attorney Edward Munoz sought a lower bail for his client, arguing that he was interviewed several times by sheriff’s investigators before his arrest and didn’t attempt to hide information.
But prosecutors opposed, noting that Woodward dyed his hair and changed his appearance after Bernstein disappeared and tried to evade surveillance by authorities before he was taken into custody.
“It’s a horrific crime,” said Steve McGreevy, senior deputy district attorney for Orange County.
McGreevy said authorities found a knife in Woodward’s car and multiple knives in his home, but could not say if any were the murder weapon.
In a statement, Bernstein’s family said it appreciated efforts to require the maximum bail and “meaningful” restrictions for Woodward.
“It gives us some measure of comfort to know that, should he be released, he will not be able to come near our family,” the statement said. “Nevertheless, we are still concerned for the public’s safety.”
Woodward, who is currently held in jail in Santa Ana, is due back in court March 2.
At the hearing, he smiled upon seeing his lawyer and then sat out of view of the more than a dozen journalists gathered in the courtroom.
Munoz declined to comment after the hearing.
At college, Bernstein was studying psychology and was recently chosen to edit a campus culinary magazine.
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.
Earlier on Friday, Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas declined to say whether authorities believe Bernstein was killed because he was gay, but said the case showed the need to change California law to include sexual orientation and gender as motivating factors for more serious murder charges that can carry the death penalty.
State Sen. Janet Nguyen said she was proposing legislation to make the change.
The murder rocked the community of Lake Forest – which had not seen a killing in at least four years – and prompted an outpouring of support for Bernstein’s family, who have urged community members to do acts of kindness in their late son’s name.
Hundreds of people attended a candlelight vigil for Bernstein and his funeral.