Suspect Samuel Woodward thought slain student Blaze Bernstein was hitting on him, report says

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- A man suspected in the killing of a 19-year-old University of Pennsylvania student who was stabbed nearly two dozen times and buried in a shallow grave at a California park told investigators that he was being hit on, a newspaper reported.

Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 20, was arrested and taken into custody Friday on suspicion of homicide after DNA evidence linked him to the death of, Blaze Bernstein, a college sophomore, Orange County Undersheriff Don Barnes said. The two knew each other from high school, Barnes said.

The Orange County Register reported that Blaze Bernstein was stabbed more than 20 times. No weapon has been found.

Carrie Braun, a public information officer for the Orange County Sheriff's Department, would not confirm to The Associated Press if Blaze Bernstein was stabbed, but said "the condition of the body at the time it was discovered turned it from a missing person to a homicide immediately."

According to a 16-page search warrant affidavit obtained by The Orange County Register, text messages sent by Bernstein suggested he may have been planning to sexually pursue Woodward.

Bernstein texted two female friends about a June interaction with Woodward, according to the affidavit. Bernstein wrote that Woodward was about to "hit on me" and "he made me promise not to tell anyone ... but I have texted every one, uh oh."

Bernstein was home visiting his family in Lake Forest during winter break when Woodward picked him up on Jan. 2 and drove with him to several places before winding up at a park.

The affidavit stated that Woodward told investigators that Bernstein kissed him on the lips at a stop before the park, and that he pushed Bernstein away.

Investigators said in the affidavit that as he recounted that part of his story, Woodward clenched his jaw and his fists, saying "he wanted to tell Blaze to get off of him."

According to the Los Angeles Times, Bernstein's parents said in a statement that if their son's slaying is determined to be 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 [a] hate crime."

"Our son was a beautiful gentle soul who we loved more than anything. We were proud of everything he did and who he was. He had nothing to hide. We are in solidarity with our son and the LGBTQ community," Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper Bernstein  wrote.

Woodward was interviewed by investigators after Bernstein was reported missing by his parents on Jan. 3.

A sheriff's investigator wrote in court filings that Woodward appeared nervous, had scratched hands and dirt under his fingernails, and avoided touching doors with his hands while leaving the sheriff's office building.

Woodward allegedly said the scratches were from a "fight club" he was involved in and his hands were dirty because he "fell into a dirt puddle," the Orange County Register had previously reported. Woodward was "breathing heavy, talking fast and visibly shaking," according to the paper.

Woodward also told investigators that Bernstein walked into the park alone and then he waited for Bernstein for an hour before driving to meet with a girlfriend, the Register reported.  He also said told investigators that he returned to the park to look for Bernstein hours later. However, according to the affidavit, Woodward could not remember his girlfriend's last name or where she lived.

It was not immediately possible to reach Woodward in custody, where he listed his occupation as "Nerf games," according to the jail's website.

Authorities searched for Bernstein for nearly a week with assistance from drone pilots and found his body last Tuesday after recent rains partially exposed it.

Woodward had been under surveillance for several days before his arrest, and at one point investigators secretly attached a court-approved GPS device to his rental car, the paper reports.

The death of Bernstein rocked the community of Lake Forest, 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Hundreds of people held a candlelight vigil to remember him.

It was the only homicide reported in Lake Forest in at least the past four years, according to authorities.