PEOPLE Explains: Mysterious Death of UPenn Student Found Dead in California While Home on Break

PEOPLE.com Lifestyle 7 months ago

University of Pennsylvania sophomore Blaze Bernstein was home in Southern California for winter break when he went missing on Jan. 3.

After an exhaustive search, the 19-year-old’s lifeless body was found Tuesday in the brush surrounding Borrego Park in Lake Forest, California, where he lived with his family.

Based upon evidence found at the scene, authorities believe he was murdered and are treating his death as a homicide.

While investigators work to find out what led to the promising Ivy League student’s shocking death, many unanswered questions remain.

Here are six things you need to know about the case.

1. Blaze Was Last Seen on Jan. 2

The night before Blaze was reported missing on his break from the University of Pennsylvania, he had dinner with his family before they went their separate ways for the evening, Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, tells PEOPLE.

His parents thought he was just sleeping in when they didn’t see him in the morning, she says. But when he missed a dental appointment in the afternoon, “that is when they started to become concerned and they reached out to us shortly after that,” Braun says.

2. He Went to a Local Park the Night He Vanished: Police

Investigators learned that Blaze was either picked up or met a friend at Borrego Park around 11 p.m. on Jan. 2, Braun says. “They got separated somehow and the friend told our investigators that Blaze walked off and he didn’t return, and that was the last time the friend said he saw him.”

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The friend said Blaze was heading in the direction of adjacent Whiting Ranch Park when he was last seen, Braun says. The friend allegedly drove off at one point and came back to look for Blaze but couldn’t find him.

3. He Might Have Been Meeting a Third Person in Park, Say Police

Investigators are trying to determine if Blaze had plans to meet someone else in the park, says Braun.

“There has kind of been some rumors about them meeting a third person,” she says. “I don’t have specific information on that. At this point, the best thing to say is our investigators are actively following up on every lead that they can that will lead to an arrest of a suspect in this case.”

4. Police Scoured the Area for a Week — as Celebrities Posted About Blaze’s Disappearance

After Blaze’s family reported him missing, authorities scoured the area for days.

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Among those who searched for Blaze were approximately 25 members of the sheriff’s search-and-rescue team, who swept through Borrego Park and Whiting Ranch Park for days. About 15 drone pilots entered the search on Sunday, looking for any clue as to the whereabouts of the teen, the Orange County Register reported.

Celebrities including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Mayim Bialik, and Kobe Bryant also posted about Blaze’s disappearance on Facebook and Twitter.

At about 2 p.m. on Tuesday, searchers found his body along the perimeter of the park.

Braun would not confirm to PEOPLE how the pre-med student was killed or what the condition of his body was when it was discovered in Borrego Park in Lake Forest.

An autopsy was scheduled to be performed on Wednesday.

5. Blaze Was a Pre-Med Student and Editor of Campus Food Magazine

Blaze’s father, Gideon, told reporters on Friday that his son had just become the managing editor of Penn Appétit, a food magazine at the University of Pennsylvania.

“He was very excited about that,” Gideon said, according to the Orange County Register. “He was working on that over the winter break and showed us the magazine they just published, which he significantly contributed to.”

Gideon said his son intended to declare a major in psychology with a minor in chemistry, “pursuing it with a pre-med focus.”

6. Parents: ‘Blaze Was a Brilliant, Colorful and Charismatic Man’

His family is reeling from their son’s shocking death. “Blaze was a brilliant, colorful and charismatic man who shined light on all of the lives of the people and communities he touched,” Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper said Wednesday during a press conference in Lake Forest, California.

“Needless to say, 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,” the grieving father said.

The family asks that contributions be made to the Blaze Bernstein Memorial Fund at the Jewish Community Foundation Orange County. Donations will be given to the Orangewood Foundation and other organizations that help children and families in needs.

• Reporting by CHRISTINE PELISEK

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