(JTA) — A former high school classmate of Blaze Bernstein, 19, the Jewish college student found dead in a park near his parents’ Southern California home, pleaded not guilty to murder charges.
Samuel Woodward, 20, of Newport Beach, California, was ordered held on $5 million bail, after he issued his plea on Friday in Orange County Superior Court. It was raised from $2 million after the judge determined that the teen was a flight risk.
He will return to court on March 2, according to reports.
Woodward was charged last month with felony murder, including a sentence enhancement for using a knife.
The Orange County Register reported that Bernstein had been stabbed more than 20 times, leading authorities to investigate whether the teen was killed in an act of rage. Bernstein was gay and is believed to have been pursuing a romantic relationship with Woodward.
Woodward was arrested after crime lab technicians determined that blood found on a sleeping bag in his possession belonged to Bernstein, the Register reported. Woodward could face a maximum sentence of 26 years to life in state prison.
Woodward is an “avowed Nazi” and a member of Atomwaffen Division, an extremist neo-Nazi group, the ProPublica news website reported.
There was no evidence that the two were friends at the Orange County School of the Arts, where they attended high school.
Bernstein had been visiting his parents’ home in Lake Forest while on winter break from the University of Pennsylvania. His body was discovered in a shallow grave in Borrego Park on Jan. 9, a week after he went missing from there. Hundreds attended a candlelight vigil in his memory after the discovery was announced.
Blaze’s mother Jeanne Pepper wrote in a first-person article for the Forward last week that in the face of Blaze’s murder, she and her husband “realized that we had an opportunity to set an example for people everywhere. To show them how even in the face of tragedy and loss, there is something better to concentrate on rather than bitterness, revenge, self-pity, and regret.”