The death of a 19-year-old college student is being probed as a homicide upon the discovery of his body, which was found in a California park a week after he disappeared.
Blaze Bernstein was on winter break from the University of Pennsylvania when he disappeared after driving with a friend to Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch at about 11 p.m. on Jan. 2, police said.
Bernstein’s family reported him missing after he failed to return home on Jan. 3.
His body was discovered in the brush surrounding the park Tuesday following a days-long search by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
Heavy rainfall in the area helped authorities spot the teen’s body.
“We thank God for this hard rain that exposed his grave,” his grandfather Richard Bernstein said at a candlelight vigil while choking back tears. “He’s with God now.”
Authorities have not commented on his cause of death.
Bernstein met a friend and the two drove to Borrego Park the night he was last seen alive, witnesses told the sheriff’s department.
According to search warrants obtained by local news sites, the friend reportedly told police Bernstein said they were going to meet another friend from high school and they arrived at the Borrego Park parking area shortly before midnight on Jan. 2.
The friend told police Bernstein walked into the park and never came back, and that he waited for about an hour before leaving to meet his girlfriend in Tustin, the Orange County Register reported.
He said he returned to the park several hours later but couldn’t find Bernstein, NBC Los Angeles wrote.
The friend was unable to recall his girlfriend’s last name or address, police reportedly said in the search warrants.
During his interview with police, the friend apparently had dirt under his fingernails that he claimed he got from a fall into “a dirt puddle,” according to reports. He also had several cuts and scratches he said he got from a “fight club,” the search warrants reportedly said.
The friend also appeared nervous and was “breathing heavy, talking fast and visibly shaking” while talking with detectives, the Orange County Register wrote.
Investigators also noted that “on their way out of sheriff’s headquarters, [they] noticed every door [the friend] had to touch on the way out of the building, he pulled his jacket over his hand to prevent his hand and fingers from touching any part of the doors he touched.”
No person of interest has been named in Bernstein’s death.
The pre-med student’s death left his family, friends and the community that knew him devastated, loved ones said.
“Blaze was a brilliant, colorful and charismatic man who shined light on all of the lives of the people and communities that he touched,” his father, Gideon Bernstein, said at an emotional press conference shortly after authorities announced they had found his oldest child’s body. “Our family is devastated by the news. We, like so many of you around the world, love Blaze and wanted nothing more than his safe return.”
After Bernstein vanished, worried loved ones gathered for candlelight vigils and appealed to celebrities to spread the word of his disappearance on social media.
Kobe Bryant, Jeremy Piven, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Mayim Bialik were among those who posted on Facebook and Twitter in an effort to locate Bernstein.
“We want to thank all of you who so generously gave of your hearts, time, and energy to help us in the search for Blaze over this past week,” the Bernstein family said in a statement. “Our family sends you all of our endless love and thanks for what you have done… We are incredibly appreciative of all the love, help and support we have received from family, friends, our community and from those around the country and throughout the world. We are thankful to law enforcement for their hard work and effort.”
The Bernstein family asked that anyone wishing to honor their son’s memory make a contribution to the Blaze Bernstein Memorial Fund at the Jewish Community Foundation of Orange County.
“This money will be given to the Orangewood Foundation and other organizations that help children and families in need,” the family said.
The sheriff’s department said it is actively following multiple leads and the investigation is active and ongoing.
Anyone with information is asked to contact the Orange County Sheriff’s Department at 714-647-7000. Anonymous tips can be submitted to Orange County Crime Stoppers at 855-TIP-OCCS.
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