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Missing Penn student found dead, homicide investigation launched

Blaze Bernstein, a Penn sophomore, had been missing since Jan. 2. His body was found the park where he was last reported to be.

Authorities have found the body or University of Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein who disappeared the night of Jan. 2, after   entering Borrego Park in the Foothill Ranch area of Lake Forest, Calif.
Authorities have found the body or University of Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein who disappeared the night of Jan. 2, after entering Borrego Park in the Foothill Ranch area of Lake Forest, Calif.Read moreOrange County Sheriff's Department

A University of Pennsylvania sophomore who disappeared last week while on a winter break visit to his home in Southern California has been found dead, officials said Wednesday.

The body of Blaze Bernstein, 19, was found Tuesday by searchers in brush in a park near his home in Lake Forest, where he was last seen the night of Jan. 2, the Orange County Sheriff's Department said.

"The case is now being investigated as a homicide," the department said in a statement. Investigators have multiple leads but have made no arrests.

The department said it would release no information about possible cause of death or condition of the body pending an autopsy.

Bernstein vanished after he and a friend drove to Borrego Park in Lake Forest, southeast of Anaheim. The friend told police that Bernstein walked off while he was in a bathroom. Police said then they did not consider the friend a suspect.

Jamie-Lee Josselyn, associate director for recruitment for creative writing at Penn, called the death "confusing" and a "mystery," describing Bernstein as a student who talked about his promising future and carved a path at the university even before he arrived as a freshman.

Josselyn, who was Bernstein's adviser, said she recruited Bernstein when she was visiting his high school in California. He was a talented writer who had an interest in the sciences. He was taking classes that provided a foundation for pre-med, Josselyn said. She took a special interest in Bernstein, asking to be his adviser after he was accepted to help him maintain his creative talents.

Bernstein was listed as a copy associate on the 2016-2017 editorial board for the Penn Review, the university's literary magazine featuring poetry, short stories, and art.magazine. In a piece about writing, called "Picking Marbles from Dirt," he penned,"I can always go back and edit and tweak what I have written, but it's those first words that lick the paper that truly determine the story's ultimate fate."

Bernstein and Josselyn worked at Kelly Writers House, a center at Penn for creative writers and artists. Even before he arrived at the university as a freshman, Bernstein was published in the Penn Review. Josselyn said she had never seen a student publish work at the school before classes started.

"That was Blaze. He was just getting things done, and figuring out how to get connected and stay involved," Josselyn said. "He made a lot of friends on campus, many at the Writers House."

"He was an excellent student in the sciences," Josselyn said, adding that Bernstein was leaning toward a psychology degree. He spoke openly about the challenges he faced at Penn, but was always optimistic and thoughtful about his classes that best prepared him for his future, she said, describing a student who was appreciative of her work and his opportunities at Penn.

"He had a lot of happiness and satisfaction with life and his life at Penn," Josselyn said. Had he been depressed or concerned about his grades, she believes he would have talked to her about it.

Meanwhile, the Orange County Register, citing police affadivits, reports that the friend who was with Bernstein the night he disappeared appeared nervous when interviewed by investigators.

The friend, a high school classmate of Bernstein, also told police that Bernstein complained about his grades in school and "seemed depressed but never said anything about wanting to hurt himself," according to the Register.,

In an afternoon news conference, Lt. Brad Valentine told reporters that investigators believe Bernstein was likely killed the night he disappeared and that his body had been in the park since then.

The search operation had been halted, but resumed after heavy rains on Tuesday. Valentine did not say if  Bernstein's body was buried, but  "the rain did help us locate the body."

The  case drew the attention of celebrities in Southern California, including Kobe Bryant, who posted the missing poster on his Facebook page.

The Orange County Sheriff's Department had been searching for Bernstein since he was reported missing.

The university late Wednesday afternoon issued a statement from Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, vice provost for university life:

"I am devastated to write you again so soon about the loss of another classmate and friend," she said.

"Blaze, 19, was from Foothill Ranch, Calif. He loved the written word. He was the incoming managing editor of Penn Appétit, the student-run food magazine, a copy associate for 34th Street, and wrote opinion columns for the Daily Pennsylvanian. He had not declared a major, but spent his freshman year in the Vagelos Molecular Sciences Program.

"I came to know Blaze, and I grieve his passing as I do all student deaths. I realize these losses have the potential to affect many, many members of our Penn family," she said.

She said a support session for students was scheduled for noon Thursday in the Ben Franklin Room at Houston Hall.

The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that eight Penn students died in 2017.

On New Year's Eve, 18-year-old freshman William Steinberg died in a plane crash in Costa Rica.

-Staff writer Robert Moran contributed to this article.