A 20-year-old charged with murdering a gay, Jewish teen this month belonged to an extremist neo-Nazi group that trained him in firearms and hand-to-hand combat, sources close to the suspect told ProPublica.
Samuel Woodward was arrested earlier this month after police found the body of 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein , who had been stabbed 20 times, buried in a Southern California park, the Washington Post reports. Police arrested Woodward, a former high school classmate of Bernstein's, after discovering that the two had been chatting on Snapchat the night of the murder. Orange County Undersheriff Don Barnes later said that DNA evidence connected Woodward to the crime.
Now three people close to Woodward have come forward to shed more light on the suspect's history, as prosecutors try to figure out whether or not to charge him with a hate crime. According to ProPublica, Woodward is a member of the Atomwaffen Division, a neo-Nazi, white supremacist hate group that targets Jewish people, minorities, and the LGTBQ community. Two of Woodward's friends and a former Atomwaffen member said he joined the group in 2016 and spent three days at one of its "hate camps," learning hand-to-hand combat and firearms training. The former member said Woodward—who was photographed making a Nazi salute at the summit—went on to organize for Atomwaffen in California.
The hate group reportedly idolizes Hitler and Charles Manson, and has roughly 80 members nationwide. According to the Anti-Defamation League, the group channels its rhetoric into extremist propaganda online, promoting a "race war," anti-semitism, and anti-LGBTQ ideology. The group's "hate camps," like the one Woodward allegedly attended, apparently provide training for the "ultimate aim of overthrowing the US government through the use of terrorism and guerrilla warfare." Individuals connected to the group have been tied to at least five killings since it was founded in 2016, the Post reports.
Police are still investigating whether Bernstein's death could be considered a hate crime, and so far Woodward is only facing a single felony count of murder, according to the Los Angeles Times. The suspected killer still hasn't entered a plea ahead of his arraignment on February 2.
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Update: This post has been updated to name Orange County Undersheriff Don Barnes as a representative from the Orange County Sheriff's Office.
Related: Inside America's Largest Right-Wing Militia