Former teacher, schoolmate recall alleged killer of Penn student as humorless and strange

Samuel Lincoln Woodward, left, is charged with killing Blaze Bernstein

The man charged with fatally stabbing a University of Pennsylvania sophomore at least 20 times was described by a former teacher Tuesday as quiet, humorless, and outspoken in his political views.

“I can’t remember a single joke or a single light-hearted moment from him,” said Philip Schwadron, who taught acting to Samuel Lincoln Woodward in 10th grade in the fall of 2012 at the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, Calif.

Still, “I never thought I was looking into the 15-year-old eyes of a killer,” Schwadron said.

Both Woodward, 20, and his alleged victim, Blaze Bernstein, 19, had attended the exclusive school. Schwadron, who didn’t teach Bernstein, described Woodward as “very quiet, very serious, very direct.”

Meanwhile, Jake Chustz, a former student who knew Woodward at the school, said in an interview Tuesday that Woodward “had a reputation for being very strange and for rubbing people the wrong way.”

Bernstein, a Penn psychology student visiting his Southern California hometown on winter break, disappeared Jan. 2 after driving to Borrego Park in Lake Forest with Woodward, the last person to see him alive, authorities said. After a weeklong search, Orange County investigators found his body in a shallow grave.

News of Bernstein’s slaying shocked a West Philadelphia campus already reeling from the death of William Steinberg, a freshman killed in a plane crash Dec. 31 in Costa Rica. Bernstein, who recently had been elected managing editor of the student-run food magazine Penn Appetit, is the ninth Penn student to die since January 2017.

On Monday, the day Bernstein’s family held a memorial service for him, a search-warrant affidavit acquired by the Orange County Register detailed the gruesome condition of his body and described strange behavior by Woodward, who was taken into custody three days earlier after DNA evidence linked blood found on his sleeping bag to Bernstein.

In comments to investigators included in the affidavit, Woodward said Bernstein had unsuccessfully made romantic advances toward him multiple times, including on the night Bernstein disappeared.

Before his arrest, Woodward told investigators that he had dropped off Bernstein at Borrego Park, only to leave after an hour to visit a girlfriend when Bernstein did not reappear. When questioned by Orange County authorities, Woodward could not remember the girlfriend’s last name or where she lived, according to the Register, but said he returned to search for Bernstein later that night.

Investigators uncovered text messages Bernstein sent to two female friends in June that implied he had previously rejected a romantic advance from Woodward. “He made me promise not to tell anyone … but I have texted every one, uh oh,” Bernstein wrote in one message cited in the affidavit. Woodward later told authorities that Bernstein had tried to kiss him on the lips just hours before the Penn student’s disappearance.

According to the affidavit, Woodward “clenched his jaw and fists” while describing the interaction, noting that “he wanted to tell Blaze to get off of him.” During his interview at the Sheriff’s Department, Woodward “avoided touching doors with his hands,” according to court filings reviewed by the Associated Press. He also drew investigators’ suspicion by attributing dirt found under his fingernails to “falling into a mud puddle” and participating in what he termed a “fight club,” the Register reported.

In Schwadron’s class, Woodward occasionally voiced conservative beliefs, mentioning at one point that President Barack Obama’s policy in Iraq was “wimpy” for not including more troops on the ground, the teacher said.

In his online musings, Woodward veered more sharply to the right.

Woodward defended the Confederate flag in a post as a symbol of “Southern pride, not hate,” according to the CBS Los Angeles affiliate, and in a thread on ask.fm, a site that invites anonymous commenters to post questions to a specific person, said atheists will go to hell, and called Obama a “spineless coward” and an “arrogant, hypocritical, spineless socialist.”

These views unnerved Woodward’s classmates at the generally liberal performing arts school, which Schwadron said Woodward left after his sophomore year.

Michael Joseph Wells, a classmate of both Bernstein’s and Woodward’s, said in a public Facebook post that Woodward was “aggressive and made scary remarks to people.”

Bernstein was remembered by friends and by his academic adviser at Penn as a skillful creative writer with omnivorous interests in science, psychology, and food writing.

Wells, who did not immediately respond to a request for comment, wrote that Bernstein was “playful and kind hearted” while Woodward always “was drawing guns when prompted to draw our favorite things.”

Camera icon Screenshot // Facebook
One of Woodward’s high school classmates described him as aggressive and scary in a public Facebook post.

On ask.fm, Woodward said that if left stranded on a deserted island, he would want “the Bible and a Colt .45.” In response to a separate query about what “new skill” he wished he could learn, Woodward said, “Waterboarding.”

When a user told Woodward, “You are violent. And it scares me,” he replied, “Haha what?? Me? I wouldn’t fight anybody unless they attacked me. I don’t know why you think that way about me.”

Camera icon Screenshot // Ask.fm
On an anonymous social forum, Woodward responded to someone who said, “You are violent.”

Bernstein’s parents released a statement Tuesday describing the circumstances of their son’s death as a possible hate crime.

“If it is determined that this was a hate crime, we will cry not only for our son, but for LGBTQ people everywhere that live in fear or who have been victims of [a] hate crime,” the family’s statement said.

Woodward was not immediately reachable Tuesday. The Orange County Jail listed his occupation as “nerf games.” He is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday, a Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman said.

Correction: A previous version of this story described text messages it said Woodward sent friends about an encounter with Bernstein. It was Bernstein who sent the texts.