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California student Blaze Bernstein killed 'because he was gay and Jewish'

High school friend pleads not guilty to Bernstein's murder

    Blaze Bernstein
    Blaze Bernstein (Photo: Facebook)

    When University of Pennsylvania sophomore Blaze Bernstein came home to Orange County for winter break, no one could have foreseen the tale of tragedy and intrigue that would follow.

    The popular Jewish student was reported missing on Wednesday, January 3, and discovered in a shallow grave in Borrego Park the following Tuesday. The park, barely a mile from his home in the affluent suburb of Foothill Ranch, is just an hour south of Los Angeles.

    The police immediately called in the last person to have seen him alive: his high school friend Sam Woodward.

    Perhaps understandably, Mr Woodward seemed shaken by the events. Less comprehensibly, however, he said that he’d driven to his girlfriend’s house after leaving Mr Bernstein that evening, though he could remember neither his girlfriend’s address nor her surname.

    Further suspicion fell on Mr Woodward with the retrieval of an online video of him re-enacting a brutal murder from the movie “American History X”

    Soon, details emerged of Mr Woodward’s involvement in the Atomwaffen Division, an American neo-Nazi group that was linked to several murders in the United States over the past couple of years. 

    ProPublica reported that Mr Woodward had attended a three-day training event with the group in Texas. Named after the German for “Atomic Weapons Division”, it is “an armed Fascist group with the ultimate aim of overthrowing the U.S. government through the use of terrorism and guerrilla warfare”, the website said.

    But other strands have intertwined to make this tale of horrific murder.

    Not only is this the story of a Jew allegedly killed by a Nazi in an affluent white suburb; it may also be a homophobic crime. In his police tatement, Mr Woodward added that Mr Bernstein, who was openly gay, had tried to kiss him.

    And to American ears, the names at the centre of the unfolding narrative — Woodward and Bernstein — lend the case a bizarre echo. The two surnames are already inextricably linked as the reporters who broke open the Watergate scandal.

    But the public has embraced the response of Blaze’s parents, Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper, which was been strong, public and exemplary. 

    Insisting on a response of love and goodness in the face of hate and murder, the parents set up a webpage for people to make donations to the Jewish Community Foundation of Orange County.

    The fund would “provide support to organizations that Blaze would have liked to support,” they said.

    Ms Pepper has spoken publicly for the need to show “how even in the face of tragedy and loss, there is something better to concentrate on rather than bitterness, revenge, self-pity and regret.”

    “We wanted people to embrace love, tolerance and kindness, to do good,” she said.

    Sam Woodward, arraigned in court last Friday, pleaded not guilty to murder. He is being held on $5 million [£3.59 million] bail with conditions including GPS monitoring, a curfew and a protective order for the victim's family if he is released. He is expected back in court on March 2.

    Dan Friedman is the executive editor of Forward.com

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