A University of Pennsylvania student who disappeared in an Orange County park while visiting his hometown during winter break has been found dead, officials announced Wednesday, and a vigil was held for him later in the evening.
Homicide investigators have been called in to handle the case, which was opened after 19-year-old Blaze Bernstein was reported missing after a visit to Borrego Park in the Foothill Ranch area of Lake Forest, the Orange County Sheriff's Department said in a statement.
If the case proves to be a homicide, it would be the first in Lake Forest in at least four years, according to O.C. County Sheriff's Lt. Brad Valentine, who has served as chief of police for Lake Forest during that time.
The teen's body was found Tuesday around 2 p.m. in brush surrounding the park, officials said. Investigators believe he had been in the park since his disappearance and was likely killed the same night he went missing.
A 25-member crew from the sheriff's search and rescue force had combed the area from Friday to Sunday, even at one point deploying drones, but found nothing.
Bernstein's body was not positively identified until Wednesday morning, at which point his parents were notified, according to Valentine.
An autopsy was performed on Wednesday to determine an official cause of death, deputies said. Officials were withholding further information about his body and the condition in which it was found, citing the ongoing investigation.
While Valentine would not confirm the body had sustained trauma, he did say its condition led detectives to suspect foul play.
“Based on what they saw, sheriff’s investigators do believe this is a homicide,” he said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference.
The police chief also noted that weather conditions contributed to the discovery.
“Rain was definitely a factor that helped us find the location,” Valentine said.
Bernstein drove to the park with a friend around 10:30 p.m. on Jan. 2 to meet another friend, his parents previously said.
He vanished after walking farther into the park to find the second friend, while the friend who drove him went into a bathroom. The last time he was heard from was around half an hour later, when he sent a final text to a female friend.
After that, his phone apparently stopped working and couldn't be tracked using the Find My iPhone app, his parents said.
The friend who went to the park with him said he left after Bernstein failed to return. That person has been interviewed by investigators several times but is not in custody, Valentine confirmed.
The 19-year-old was officially reported missing by his parents on Jan. 3.
His parents believed he didn't intend to be gone for long as he left home without his wallet, ID and glasses. They also maintain he had "zero tolerance" for drugs and alcohol and don't think illicit substances played a role.
During Wednesday's press conference, his father, Gideon Bernstein, spoke on behalf of himself and his wife, Jeanne Pepper-Bernstein.
"Blaze was a brilliant, colorful and charismatic man who shined light on all of the lives of the people and communities he touched," he said. "Needless to say our family is devastated by the news. We — like so many of you around the world — loved Blaze, and we wanted nothing more than to seek his safe return."
Later, on Wednesday, family and friends gathered at a candlelight vigil in the teen's hometown of Lake Forest to mourn his death. Friends who spoke to KTLA remembered him as a caring individual, and a talented writer and cook.
"He was an amazing kid, he made everybody smile on the bus," said Matt Stevens.
His mother, who attended and spoke at the gathering, thanked detectives and search crews who looked tirelessly for her son.
"They gave up sleep, they gave up food and we're so grateful for them tonight," Pepper-Bernstein said.
So far, no suspects have been arrested, but a search warrant was served in Newport Beach on Tuesday night, Valentine said.
While no persons of interest have been publicly identified, Valentine said persons of interest are also part of the active investigation.
However, officials "don’t feel that there is a direct threat to the community at this time,” Valentine said.
Bernstein had been a pre-med student at the University of Pennsylvania and was expected to return to campus Sunday, according to the Orange County Register.
On Wednesday, his parents asked his memory be honored with acts of kindness and announced the creation of the Blaze Bernstein Memorial Fund at the Jewish Community Foundation Orange County, which they said would work to support the Orangewood Foundation and other causes dedicated to children and families in need.