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Samuel Woodward, Catholic accused of hate crime murder in California, testifies in Orange County

The 26-year-old college dropout, known for racist and homophobic online activity, admitted to killing his high school classmate, a gay Jewish man.

Samuel Woodward, accused of murdering a former high school classmate because of his being a gay Jewish man, testifies in Orange County Superior Court on June 13, 2024, in Santa Ana, California. (Leonard Ortiz/AP)

Courtroom testimony is ongoing in California for neo-Nazi sympathizer Samuel Woodward, who is charged with murdering 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein in what is considered to be a hate crime. Trial proceedings began in April in Orange County, where the killing took place in 2018.

The young University of Pennsylvania student, the killer's former high school classmate, was found dead in a park in his hometown after being lured there by Woodward. The two had reconnected on a gay dating app and authorities say the crime had connections to the Atomwaffen Division, a far-right international White terrorist network of which Woodward is a member.

Woodward, a 26-year-old from a self-described “conservative, Catholic family,” has pled not guilty in Orange County Superior Court and denies that the killing was premeditated or based on Bernstein’s sexual orientation or Jewish identity.

Instead, Woodward claims, Bernstein attempted to out him as gay with a form of “revenge porn” that he intended to share in order to expose him as a “f***ing hypocrite,” given his ultra-conservative beliefs.

“I was just in mortal terror,” Woodward told jurors during courtroom testimony on June 16, claiming that Bernstein captured an intimate photo of Woodward while he was intoxicated. 

“All I remember is him telling me something that sounded like ‘It's already done,' and ‘I got you, I got you.’”

Blaze Bernstein is seen in an undated photo. (Courtesy: Gideon Bernstein)

Woodward says he proceeded to stab Bernstein 28 times and bury him near Borrego Park in Lake Forest, California. He was discovered there eight days later, after which incriminating evidence was found in Woodward’s home. He was arrested and charged within two weeks of the murder, which falls under hate crime statutes in the state of California.

Woodward’s motivation has remained a point of controversy in the case, which took a turn in April after more than six years of legal proceedings. That month, it was revealed that Bernstein confessed to a friend via text message that he had done “something really horrible for the story”—sent potentially just minutes before he was killed.

Woodward, who has ties to neo-Nazism and White supremacist influences more broadly, was known to have kept a personal journal in which he described plans to meet gay men and spook them with threats of violence. He also posted messages in web forums connected to the Atomwaffen Division that authorities have described as racist, homophobic, and antisemitic.

Woodward himself is believed to have been a closeted homosexual, according to statements he made to his father and evidenced by explicit photos he apparently shared with male classmates. Woodward claims he killed Bernstein in part because of fear that his devoutly Catholic father would react negatively if he knew the intimate details of his personal life.

"Just thinking of the look on [my father’s] face... if it got out at all," Woodward testified, "I couldn't fathom that."

Msgr Wilbur Davis, pastor of Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Newport Beach, California, speaks about his former parishioner Samuel Woodward at the Orange County Central Justice Center in Santa Ana in January 2018. (Allen J. Schaben/Getty)

During continued testimony on Monday, Woodward had little to share concerning his past sexual activity, saying he couldn’t remember details. He did, however, deny that he ever sent explicit photos to male classmates—despite some images entered as evidence that match unique features of his living quarters at the time.

Woodward has continued to lean on his mental health as a cause of his unusual behaviors and poor social life before the Bernstein killing. He has been diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum and described himself as having few friends outside of internet acquaintances. (Following a delay, he was deemed competent to stand trial by mental health experts in 2022.)

Among his unsavory online associations was the Atomwaffen group, which Woodward joined after having been influenced by its relatively less extreme counterpart, Vanguard America—itself connected to Virginia’s deadly Unite the Right rally in 2017. 

Woodward has said in court that he does not remember any associations with Vanguard America, though he admits to joining Atomwaffen to find male companionship and masculine identity. A bloodied black mask with the group’s logo was found at the Woodward family home in Newport Beach before his arrest for Bernstein's murder.

Atomwaffen, founded by White Southerners in 2013, has since expanded to a number of Western countries with a White-majority population. It is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center and has been linked to at least five murders in the U.S. since 2019.

Woodward's killing of Bernstein, which has been upgraded due to two hate crime enhancements, carries a maximum penalty of life in prison without parole.

Nate Tinner-Williams is co-founder and editor of Black Catholic Messenger.

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