The California man charged with fatally stabbing a University of Pennsylvania sophomore at least 20 times is "an avowed neo-Nazi and a member of one of the most notorious extremist groups in the country," according to a report by ProPublica.
Samuel Lincoln Woodward, 20, is suspected of killing Blaze Bernstein, a 19-year-old psychology student, who disappeared the night of Jan. 2 while visiting his Southern California hometown on winter break. Bernstein went missing after driving to Borrego Park in Lake Forest with Woodward, the last person to see him alive, authorities said. The two had attended school together at the Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, Calif.
Prosecutors in Orange County say they are investigating whether the killing was a hate crime. Bernstein, whose body was found in a shallow grave one week after going missing, was Jewish and openly gay. Recent news reports uncovered alarming details from the alleged killer's social media accounts that point to far-right or even white supremacist political beliefs.
Even those who knew Woodward spotted red flags. Jake Chustz, a former student who attended the same high school as the young men, said in an interview that Woodward "had a reputation for being very strange and for rubbing people the wrong way." ProPublica obtained social media posts and chat logs shared by Woodward's friends, showing that he openly described himself as a "National Socialist" or Nazi.
Its report, published Friday, cites three people with detailed knowledge of Woodward's recent past, who expose his affiliation with the Atomwaffen Division, an armed Fascist group that aims to overthrow the U.S. government through terrorism and guerrilla warfare.
The organization, which holds Adolf Hitler and Charles Manson in high regard, began in 2015 and has grown to about 80 members scattered around the country in small cells. Atomwaffen Division, meaning "Atomic Weapons Division" in German, is said to be a radical leader of the white supremacist movement, one of the more dangerous groups to emerge from the new wave of white supremacists.
Characterized by a penchant for violence, members of the militant neo-Nazi group have been connected to four other murders and an elaborate bomb plot over the last eight months. According to the group's website, members must be white; they must not be married or dating a person of another race; they must be physically fit or willing to improve their fitness; and they are given a required reading list starting with Hitler's Mein Kampf.
Revelations about Woodward's extremist activities come from two of his friends and a former member of Atomwaffen Division. "Woodward joined the organization in early 2016 and later traveled to Texas to attend Atomwaffen meetings and a three-day training camp, which involved instruction in firearms, hand-to-hand combat, camping and survival skills," ProPublica reported. Photographs it obtained show Woodward at an outdoor Atomwaffen meeting in Texas. "One of the photos depicts Woodward and other members making straight-armed Nazi salutes while wearing skull masks. In other pictures, Woodward is unmasked and easily identifiable," the report said.
According to one person who participated in the Texas training and watched Woodward shoot handguns and assault rifles, the young man is a proficient marksman. The source also disclosed Woodward's involvement in helping to organize a number of Atomwaffen members in California.