UPDATE: The body of Blaze Bernstein was discovered Jan. 9 in Borrego Park in Lake Forest. His death is currently being investigated as a homicide and no suspects have been identified yet.
Blaze Bernstein, a 19-year-old pre-med student at the University of Pennsylvania who returned home to Orange County for winter break, disappeared on Jan. 2. His sudden disappearance has shaken his family and the community.
His parents, Jeanne Pepper and Gideon Bernstein, immediately launched a Facebook group called “Help Us Find Blaze Bernstein” hoping to find out what happened to their son and bring him home.
From what little they know, Blaze asked a high school friend late on the night of Jan. 2 to drive him to Borrego Park in Foothill Ranch to meet a third person. Blaze left the house without telling his parents and went with his friend to the park, located about five minutes away.
According to the friend, Blaze got out of the car around 11 p.m. while the friend went to use a restroom. When the friend returned, Blaze was gone and has not been seen since.
“Everyone has been so supportive — teachers, students, all the community.” — Gideon Bernstein
The friend sent text messages to Blaze but got no response. The friend then left the park but returned at 4 a.m. to look again.
Eventually, the location device on Bernstein’s phone, which he had borrowed from a relative, stopped functioning and the phone was turned off at 11:30 p.m.
The Orange County Sheriff’s Department said it doesn’t suspect foul play, and that the friend is a witness, not a suspect.
Blaze’s parents told the Journal they are hopeful their son will return home.
“It’s surreal. We have been waiting for him to come in the door any minute now,” Gideon Bernstein said. “We are trying to do everything we can to get his picture out there and hope that someone recognizes him.”
Gideon Bernstein, who serves as the chairman of the board of the Jewish Community Foundation of Orange County, said the help the family has received from the community has been overwhelming.
“There is no downtime. We are constantly busy,” the father said. “Right now, we have people downstairs who are working on the Facebook page we opened for Blaze. Only late at night, when everyone leaves and we are alone in our room, we let ourselves break down and cry.”
“He left our house that night with no wallet, no money, no identification, no credit cards, no keys, no eyeglasses,” Jeanne Pepper said. “This is someone that needs to wear eyeglasses.”
Gideon Bernstein said he hadn’t noticed anything amiss with his son. “He recently became managing editor of the foodie magazine at the University of Pennsylvania, called Penn Appétit,” he said. “So, he was very excited about that. He was working on that over the winter break and showed us the magazine they just published, which he significantly contributed to.”
Blaze, he said, was planning to declare a major in psychology with a minor in chemistry and “pursuing it with a pre-med focus.”
“He was having a good time with us and in good spirits,” he said.
Blaze’s parents didn’t know their son was missing until the next morning, Jan. 3, when they realized he hadn’t slept in his room.
Two dozen reserve sheriff’s deputies conducted an extensive, three-day search around the the 2,500-acre park at Whiting Ranch but found no clues, said sheriff’s spokeswoman Carrie Braun.
During the search, Blazes parents also used camera-equipped drones to comb the area.
The couple’s other two children, 14 and 17, returned to school this week with the help of a therapist. “Everyone has been so supportive — teachers, students, all the community,” Gideon Bernstein said. “Some celebrities also picked up on the story and are trying to spread the word. Kobe Bryant highlighted us — Keyshawn Johnson, Jeremy Piven, the Housewives of Orange County and Matisyahu.”
Gideon Bernstein said he doesn’t want to speculate about what happened to his son.
“My message to Blaze is simply that we want him home, at all cost, and we don’t care why and what happened. We just want him home.”