In the span of two weeks, the news surrounding College sophomore Blaze Bernstein has evolved from what seemed to be a missing persons' case into what authorities now confirm was a homicide.
The body of Bernstein, who went missing on Jan. 2, was discovered in a shallow grave around the perimeter of Borrego Park on Jan. 10. Two days later, on Jan. 12, the Orange County Sheriff’s Department arrested a high school friend of Bernstein's, Sam Woodward, in connection to Bernstein’s death.
According to the OC Sheriff's Department, Woodward was the last person in contact with Bernstein before he disappeared. According to a search warrant affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register, detectives who spoke to Woodward two days after Bernstein's disappearance noticed that his hands appeared to have small scratches on them and he appeared to have "dirt under his fingernails." The affidavit also reportedly stated that Woodward attributed the scratches and abrasions to a "fight club."
As this case continues to unfold in Orange County, Calif., students and faculty at Penn are finding their own ways to mourn the loss of Bernstein and to keep his memory alive.
Bernstein was on the pre-med track, intending to major in psychology, and during his freshman year was involved in the Vagelos Scholars Program in the Molecular Life Sciences. Bernstein’s mother, Jeanne Pepper, told The Daily Pennsylvanian that for the College sophomore, being a doctor “just clicked.”
“Whatever you do I just want you to be productive, accomplish something, and I want you to do something good, just do good with your life,” Pepper recalled telling her son. “And he took that to heart.”
“He didn’t listen to very much I said because I wasn’t as smart as he was,” Pepper added, “but I know that he believed that that was how he was ultimately going to have happiness, was just to do something good with his gifts.”
Despite his academic interest in the sciences, Bernstein also actively pursued his passion for writing, which he was able to keep in his life through various extracurricular activities.
Bernstein was involved in the University's food magazine, Penn Appetit, and prior to the winter break, had just been elected to be the publication's managing editor. He was a copy associate for the literary magazine, Penn Review, and was about to start his term as a copy associate for 34th Street Magazine.
Bernstein’s father, Gideon Bernstein, said he and Pepper plan on coming to Penn’s campus in the near future to hold a memorial service, which might be planned in coordination with other memorials on campus. Details for the memorial have not yet been released.
At Penn, faculty and students worked to organize a small candlelight vigil for Bernstein at the Kelly Writers House on Jan. 10 when reports of Bernstein's death emerged. The next day, the University also held a support group for the entire Penn community in Houston Hall.
Bernstein's pre-major advisor Jamie-Lee Josselyn said she had known Bernstein even before he came to Penn. As the associate director for recruitment at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing, she often interacts with high school students and got to know Bernstein when he was still a student at the Creative Writing Conservatory at the Orange County School of the Arts.
“He actualized what I talk about with a lot of advisees and I think what Penn students really want to accomplish in terms of just balancing their lives inside and outside the classroom in a way that’s productive and healthy and fulfilling,” Josselyn said. “He was really on that path.”
Josselyn flew out to California to attend some memorial services and to visit the Bernstein family, but has also continued to communicate with students and staff at Penn who were close to Bernstein.
Back on campus, Penn Appetit is working on how to proceed through the semester without its managing editor. Bernstein was critical to the production of the magazine, said Penn Appetit's Executive Director and Wharton sophomore Rachel Prokupek. Now, in addition to coping with the loss of one of its core team members, the magazine must also start to figure out how to fill that vacant position, she said.
The leaders of the magazine are also trying to figure out how best to mourn his loss and to keep his spirit alive. On Jan. 13, the magazine posted several monochrome pictures of Bernstein playing with an apron and some whisks.
"We would like to honor our amazingly talented, passionate, intelligent, kind and devoted Whisk copy editor, Blaze N. Bernstein," they wrote on Facebook. "We miss you dearly, Blaze. You will always be a part of our Penn Appétit family. We love you and keep #whiskingit."
In addition, College sophomore and Business Manager for Penn Appetit Kate Kassin said they were considering doing a themed issue "to honor Blaze and his character.”
Prokupek said apart from having a talent for writing, Bernstein had really taken up cooking and developed a real passion for it. While most staff at Penn Appetit are skilled at either writing or cooking, Bernstein was good at both. He was in charge of copy-editing the entire written section of the magazine, but still submitted his own recipes to the cookbook that the magazine put together last semester.
Bernstein’s father said that the night that he left, on Jan. 2, he had served a feast for the family that he had spent several days preparing.
In California, Bernstein’s parents have set up the Blaze Bernstein Memorial Fund through the Jewish Community Foundation of Orange County to raise money in Bernstein’s memory. The elder Bernstein said the title of the Facebook group that he had started to find Bernstein has now changed from “Help us find Blaze Bernstein” to “Help us remember Blaze Bernstein,” and it still remains active.