Body Identified as Missing University of Pennsylvania Student

LAKE FOREST (CNS) - A body found near Borrego Park by Orange County sheriff's investigators was identified today as that of missing University of Pennsylvania student Blaze Bernstein, and his death is being investigated as a homicide.

Sheriff's officials said the body was found about 2 p.m. Tuesday in some brush surrounding Foothill Ranch park, which is adjacent to Borrego Park. No details were released on the cause of death or the condition of the body. Sheriff's officials said an autopsy was scheduled to be performed Wednesday.

No suspects were in custody, and investigators asked anyone with information to contact the sheriff's department at (714) 647-7000.

Orange County sheriff's Lt. Brad Valentine declined to discuss specifics of the case, noting only that the rain over the past two days contributed to the discovery of the body. He also confirmed that investigators had served a search warrant at a location in Newport Beach, but he did not provide details.

Bernstein was last seen about 11 p.m. Jan. 2 and was reported missing the next day.

Sheriff's officials and volunteers spent the weekend searching Borrego Park and the Whiting Ranch area. They began searching the Foothill Ranch park area Tuesday afternoon, leading to the discovery of the body, officials said.

Bernstein, who was visiting relatives while on winter break from the University of Pennsylvania, went missing after going to Borrego Park with a friend to meet another person, said Annee Della Donna, an attorney and friend of the family.

He had sent a text message at 9:30 p.m. Jan. 2 with his family's Lake Forest address for a high school buddy to pick him up and take him to the park to meet a third person, she said.

The park is five minutes away from the family home and Bernstein and his friend got there at 10:30 p.m., the attorney said. Bernstein went off alone into the park while his friend waited back in the car, she said.

Bernstein's friend eventually began sending text messages to him when he didn't return, but did not hear back from him, she said. The friend left and then returned at 4 a.m. to look for Bernstein again.

Eventually, the location device on Bernstein's phone stopped functioning and the phone was turned off, Della Donna said.

``He didn't have anything with him,'' she said. ``He didn't have his glasses or his medication. He didn't bring his wallet or a phone charger. I don't think he planned on this being a long trip and he just disappeared.''

The victim's father, Gideon, ``could not stop crying'' when informed of his son's death, Della Donna said.

``They're just devastated,'' she said of the family.

Gideon Bernstein struggled to control his emotions as he spoke to reporters Wednesday afternoon, but he called his son ``a brilliant, colorful and charismatic man who shined light on all of the lives of the people and communities that he touched.''

``Needless to say, our family is devastated by the news,'' he said. ``We like so many of you around the world loved Blaze, and we wanted nothing more than to see his safe return. We want to thank all of you who so generously gave us all your hearts, your time and your energy to help us in the search for Blaze over this past week.''

He urged people to continue providing tips and information to sheriff's investigators, and he thanked the community for its support of the family.

``We have had people do random acts of kindness, and so many friends and family that have reached out to us,'' he said. ``It's unbelievable what you people have done for us and our son and his memory.''

He said the family was making funeral arrangements, but he said people who wanted to honor their son could donated to the Blaze Bernstein Memorial Fund at the Jewish Community Foundation of Orange County.

``This money will be given to organizations including the Orangewood Foundation and other organizations that help children and families in need,'' he said.

Gideon Bernstein previously told City News Service that his son was a sophomore and was planning to declare a psychology major with a minor in chemistry with a ``pre-med focus.''

``He was eager to get back to school,'' his father said. ``We were having a great vacation time with him. He was in great spirits.''

Blaze Bernstein ``loved cooking'' and made dinner for the family the night of the disappearance, Gideon Bernstein said.

Bernstein had just been named managing editor of the campus ``foodie magazine'' and proudly showed some of his work to his family, his father said.

Photo: Orange County Sheriff's Department

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