1 year after Blaze Bernstein’s killing, parents look to turn alleged hate crime into ‘movement of hope’

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KABC(LOS ANGELES) -- Blaze Bernstein was a bright student, loyal friend and passionate culinary aficionado who spent the fall of 2017 as a sophomore taking pre-med courses at the University of Pennsylvania and acting as a managing editor of the school's culinary magazine, friends and family recalled.

"He was always so involved in ‘Penn Appétit’ and he absolutely loved food,” said classmate Rachel Prokupek. “He always got super passionate and in-depth into whatever he was writing about.”

Gideon Bernstein, Blaze's father, said his son had a "gift for creative writing."

"He applied and auditioned to get into a performing arts and creative arts charter school called Orange County School of the Arts," he told ABC News this month. "That's really where he got a lot of his development for his amazing writing skills, which was really how he was able to get into the University of Pennsylvania."

But just a couple of weeks after completing his third semester at school, Blaze Bernstein's promising life was cut short back home in California.

Wednesday will mark a year since Bernstein, 19, who was gay and Jewish, was stabbed to death in an alleged hate crime while home for winter break.

His devastated parents said they've spent the year battling the "uncharted grounds of losing a child" as they struggle to come "to grips of being the victims of an incredible tragedy" that captured the nation's attention.

As their son's former high school classmate prepares to go on trial for murder, the Bernsteins say, amid their grief, "We're trying to take a moment of hate and turn it into a movement of hope."

Through a campaign encouraging people to participate in acts of kindness, Gideon Bernstein says, "We want his name to be remembered as somebody who reminds people of the hope for the future."

A week-long search

The hard-working teen was home in Southern California with his family for winter break when he vanished on Jan. 2, 2018.

His worried parents reported him missing the next day.

Blaze Bernstein was last seen driving with a friend to Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch, authorities said initially.

Over the next week, Orange County Sheriff's Department officials combed through the park. A group of professional and amateur drone users even offered to help in the search.

Blaze Bernstein's body was found on Jan. 9 in the brush surrounding Borrego Park, the sheriff's department said.

His body was left near his elementary school, where he'd play soccer and the library he used to visit, his mother said.

An alleged hate crime

It was Sam Woodward, a former classmate of Blaze Berstein's from the Orange County School of the Arts, who had allegedly picked up the teen from his parents' home that night, Orange County prosecutors said.

At some point, prosecutors believe Woodward stabbed Bernstein 19 times and buried his body in the dirt.

Woodward, then 20 years old, was arrested on Jan. 12 and charged with murder.

Woodward's cell phone allegedly revealed racist, homophobic and anti-Semitic thoughts and intentions, prosecutors said. He was linked to a neo-Nazi organization, according to a source close to the case.

Woodward is accused of targeting Blaze Bernstein because of his sexual orientation. A hate crime sentencing enhancement was added to the murder charge in August.

Woodward, who has pleaded not guilty to murder, also faces a sentencing enhancement of personal use of a knife; he has denied both enhancements.

Robert Kohler, a public defender who is defending Woodward, confirmed his client pleaded not guilty but did not comment to ABC News on the ongoing case.

For Gideon Bernstein, it's "been hard to be able to come to grips with" the "realization" that "there's still a lot of people out there that just have some reason to hate."

The number of sexual orientation-based hate crimes reported in 2017 increased 5 percent from 2016, according to FBI data, said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel for the Anti-Defamation League. Beyond sexual orientation, hate crimes overall increased 17 percent from 2016 to 2017, FBI data showed, according to Lieberman.

One of the most monumental steps to combat sexual orientation-based hate crimes was the 2009 signing of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which added crimes motivated by the victim's gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, religion and disability to the federal hate crime law.

"There has been tremendous progress on addressing hate violence since the passage of the Matthew Shepard Act in 2009," said Lieberman, who was involved in the push to pass the act.

It was named after 21-year-old Matthew Shepard, who in 1998 was abducted, tied to a fence and fatally beaten in Wyoming for being openly gay. It was also named after James Byrd Jr., a black man murdered by three white supremacists in Texas in 1998.

"It took us 13 years to pass the Matthew Shepard Act," Lieberman said, "because we insisted that sexual orientation be included. Sexual orientation is always the third or second most frequent hate crime behind race and religion.

"There has been improved training, education awareness of sexual orientation crimes since Matthew Shepard," Lieberman said.

He stressed, however, that "it would be really important to have complementary federal initiatives to prevent bullying" because "the best way to address hate crimes is to prevent them."

Lieberman said the Trump administration has "taken their eye off the ball on the prevention side," something he hopes to fight in 2019.
'We can't bring him back'

As Woodward's case inches toward trial, the Bernsteins haven't attended the court appearances.

The slain teen's mother, Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, said she'll only go if it will help bring justice.

"As far as we're concerned, there's nothing that ... will come out of us being there," she told ABC News. "It will not fix the problem. And the problem is my son is gone. We can't bring him back. So whatever happens, I just want the resolution to protect the safety and welfare of our community, so that this person, if it is found that he did this, that he is not allowed out in our society again to hurt anyone else."

Woodward, now 21, returns to court on Jan. 25. If convicted, Woodward faces life in prison without the possibility of parole, prosecutors said.

'A movement of hope'

Instead of focusing on the crime, Jeanne Pepper Bernstein said her family is "focused on things that we can fix, and things that can improve the quality of life for everyone, which includes tolerance education."

"We're trying to take a moment of hate and turn it into a movement of hope," Gideon Bernstein said. "That's hope for humanity, and hope for other people to help to make this world a better place now that our son is no longer here. And we've been doing everything in our power to try to focus on that."

The Bernsteins consider one of their most significant accomplishments this year the "Blaze it Forward" campaign, which aims to honor their son by encouraging people to participate in community service and other acts of kindness.

On the "Blaze it Forward" Facebook page, participants share their good deeds in Blaze's memory and to inspire others.

One woman recounted how she and her mother bought gloves and socks for a young homeless man they often see near their home.

"We handed him all these items and told him the story of Blaze and reason for why we wanted to do this for him. We left him speechless," she wrote in the December post. "Thank you Blaze for the inspiration to do good for all mankind."

Another woman wrote, "Inspired by the stories here, I decided to sell my glass artwork during the holidays and am sending 100% of the proceeds to support cancer organizations."

In addition, the Blaze Bernstein Memorial Fund was launched to support charities that protect kids from violence and other charities Blaze would have been involved in. A scholarship in Blaze's name has also been started to support local, college-bound students who have overcome struggles and contributed to their community.

"We want his name to be remembered as somebody who reminds people of the hope for the future," Gideon Bernstein said. "What was taken from us, that they have to replace that by doing other things to help people out and make this world a better place. And that keeps us going."

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