Samuel Woodward, the man charged with murdering College sophomore Blaze Bernstein, was part of an extremist, neo-Nazi group, according to a report published by the nonprofit news organization ProPublica on Jan. 26.
Based on the accounts of three sources with close knowledge of Woodward's past, ProPublica reported that Woodward has been a member of the Atomwaffen Division, which the Southern Poverty Law Center listed in 2016 as an active hate crime group. The Anti-Defamation League has described the group as "a loose group of neo-Nazis" that has been targeting college campuses. The group was allegedly among a range of other alt-right organizations behind the racist flyers that appeared at various American universities, including Penn, in late 2016.
ProPublica said it obtained pictures of Woodward at an Atomwaffen meeting held in the Texas countryside. One of the pictures shows Woodward in a mask making the Nazi salute, and other pictures show him without a mask and easily identifiable.
The report from ProPublica comes as the latest update in the ongoing investigation into the death of Bernstein, who went missing in Orange County, Calif. on Jan. 2, and was later found dead in a shallow grave on Jan. 10. Several days later, the Orange County Register reported that Bernstein, who was gay, had been stabbed over 20 times in what authorities suggest was "an act of rage."
Woodward, who attended high school with Bernstein at the Orange County School of the Arts, was charged with the murder of the Penn student on Jan. 17. According to a sealed affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register, he told investigators that on the night of Bernstein's murder, the Penn student had tried to kiss him.
Following Woodward's arrest, there have been reports that the slaying was a hate crime targeted specifically against Bernstein's sexuality. Orange County District Attorney Tony Rackauckas said at a press conference on Jan. 17 that investigators have yet to establish a motive, but that they were “open to all evidence.”
“The question of a hate crime is one question that we have about the possibility of special circumstances, and so we’re looking to see whether or not that might be supported,” he said.
In the past year, other members of the Atomwaffen Division have been connected to four other murders. Earlier this month, Brandon Russell, a founding member of the organization, was sentenced to five years in prison for possessing a stash of homemade explosives.
Speaking to the Los Angeles Times on Jan. 18, Bernstein's mother, Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, said she had long been worried about the threats to her son's safety because of his identity.
"I'm concerned about the fact that he is Jewish. I'm concerned with the fact that he is gay or the fact that he is small," she said. "I was concerned for his safety always. I was concerned sending him out into the big world. But at some point you have to let go and they leave the nest and fly. I couldn't protect him from everything."
At Penn, Bernstein was involved in a range of literary clubs on campus, including the Penn Review and the magazine Penn Appetit. As the investigation into his killing has unfolded, students, faculty, and staff who knew the College sophomore have found ways to honor his memory on campus.
Jamie-Lee Josselyn, Bernstein's academic adviser, flew out to California to attend his memorial service and gave a speech that was later printed in full as a guest column in The Daily Pennsylvanian.
Woodward's arraignment is set for Feb. 2 and if he is convicted of the charges laid out on Jan. 17, he could face 26 years to life in state prison.
This is a developing story that was last updated at 10:55 a.m. on Jan. 27. Check back here for updates.