Loved Ones Mourn Blaze Bernstein’s ‘Sweet Smile’ As Death Is Ruled Homicide
Despite six days of feverish searching by family, friends and the police, it was the rain that finally uncovered the body of Blaze Bernstein.
Around 2 p.m. on Tuesday, members of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department found the 19-year-old in the brush that surrounds the sports fields of Borrego Park, in Orange County, California. Police said that a recent downpour had made his body easier to find. The case was quickly ruled a homicide.
By Wednesday evening, news of Bernstein’s death had spread through communities that were already reeling from his disappearance: His family reported him missing the morning of January 3, when he failed to show up for a dentist appointment. Bernstein, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, was home for winter break. At first, his parents thought he had simply overslept.
After a chaotic week of searching, appeals for help on national television and shout-outs from celebrities, the Bernstein family — Blaze’s parents, two younger siblings and grandfather — attended a candlelight vigil at the park where he was last seen. Dozens of candles burned in the dark on a picnic table, surrounded by bouquets of flowers and pictures of Bernstein showing off his well-known “sweet smile.”
“We thank God for this hard rain that exposed his grave,” Richard Bernstein, Blaze’s grandfather, said before choking back tears.
Mystery shrouds Blaze Bernstein’s last hours. A spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department said little information is forthcoming so as not to jeopardize the homicide investigation. Police say they have made no arrests and have not named any persons of interest.
“We have a very active homicide investigation, and our interest is to bring a suspect into custody,” Carie Braun, a spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Department, told the Forward.
According to an affidavit obtained by the Orange County Register, detectives had spoken twice with the person who saw Bernstein last, a friend of his from high school who has not been named.
The 16-page affidavit, filed by the sheriff’s investigator, detailed the friend’s story about his night out with Bernstein.
The friend picked up Bernstein from his home in Foothill Ranch and they drove to the parking lot of a nearby Hobby Lobby to “hang out” and “catch up.” Shortly before midnight, the two arrived at Borrego Park, where Bernstein said he wanted to meet up with a mutual friend of theirs.
Bernstein left the car and walked into the park. When he did not come back after an hour, the friend tried contacting Bernstein through Snapchat. Around 1 a.m., the friend claimed he went to his girlfriend’s house in nearby Tustin. But in the affidavit, the detective says Bernstein’s friend could not remember his own girlfriend’s last name or her address.
The friend also said that he returned to the park at around 3:40 a.m. Eventually he went home, not reporting Bernstein’s absence to his family.
In one interview, interviewers noticed that the friend had scratches on his hands and dirt under his fingernails, which he attributed to having participated in a recent “fight club” with friends. The affidavit also claims that the friend was “visibly shaking” in a second interview with investigators.
Braun, of the Sheriff’s Department, declined to comment on any information gleaned from the leaked affidavit.
“Based on what we know, I believe Blaze was probably killed that night,” Lt. Brad Valentine, chief of police services for the City of Lake Forest, said at a news conference Wednesday.
Bernstein’s parents, Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper, made an appearance at the hastily organized conference. They say they didn’t even know Bernstein had left the house, and that he left his wallet and keys at home.
“We — like so many of you around the world — love Blaze and wanted nothing more than his safe return,” Gideon Bernstein said Wednesday, standing next to his wife.
“This woman has been my rock this last week,” Bernstein said, holding back tears. “And our children are so strong. And we just want to see resolution.”
Gideon Bernstein is the chairman of the Jewish Community Foundation in Orange County. Jeanne Pepper runs The Bernstein Family Trust.
Blaze Bernstein was named for his grandfathers and for the 17th century French polymath Blaise Pascal. Blaze’s communities — both in California and at the University of Pennsylvania — knew him as a polymath in his own right.
After attending one of the best high schools for the arts in the United States, Bernstein went to Penn, where he threw himself into biochemistry, psychology, poetry and food writing.
“He was one of these kids that absorbed every experience and did something with it,” said Rabbi Arnie Rachlis, leader of the University Synagogue in Irvine. Rachlis watched Bernstein grow up and presided over his bar mitzvah as well as the bar and bat mitzvahs of Bernstein’s younger brother and sister. “He was not somebody who just went through life, he took experiences as a gift and saw them as part of the whole.”
While in high school, Bernstein worked Saturdays at synagogue as a madrich, or classroom aide — a job to which Bernstein had a “profound connection,” Rachlis said.
Rachlis also spoke of how Bernstein kept track of his favorite movies and books. After reading his first Steinbeck novel, he made a point of visiting the site of Cannery Row. Bernstein was also known for being an excellent cook. The night he disappeared, he had made his family a dinner of roast turkey and butternut squash soup.
“He had talent in the right brain and the left brain,” Rachlis said.
Bernstein went on to hone those talents at Penn. Like many college undergraduates, Bernstein was struggling to find ways to fit all his passions into his life. He served as the managing editor of the student food magazine, Penn Appetit, and was a copy editor for UPenn’s literary review. He took classes in chemistry and mulled a major in psychology. Every now and then, he penned opinion columns for the campus newspaper.
“It was very clear to me that he was an excellent writer and an excellent student,” said Jamie-Lee Josselyn, Bernstein’s academic adviser. They met when Bernstein was applying to college, when he became the only high school student Josselyn knows of to have writing published in Penn’s literary magazine.
“I asked him if I could be his adviser mostly to make sure that he didn’t go too far from creative writing,” Josselyn said. “Because I wanted to keep him.”
Josselyn said that Bernstein was shy but friendly, and not known for hiding his opinions.
“He flew under the radar with his really sharp sense of humor,” she said.
That sense of humor is evident on Bernstein’s Facebook page, where he listed himself as an “adjunct professor of Beppo studies at The University of Buca di Beppo.” This past December he created a petition to bring the Baha Men to UPenn’s Spring Fling dance.
“While we are devastated by the news of his death and the mysterious circumstances surrounding this investigation, we are striving to remember the warm, funny and kind person Blaze was,” Chris Huntley, a friend of Bernstein’s from high school, wrote in an email. “He was quick to help when I asked, and would always leave me with some sort of smile or chuckle.”
“I am incredibly sad that the rest of the world he was going to meet over the years won’t get the chance to know him.”
Blaze Bernstein’s funeral is scheduled for Monday, January 15. His family has set up a memorial fund for donations to the Jewish Community Foundation of Orange County.