Parents of Blaze Bernstein, the University of Pennsylvania sophomore found dead on Tuesday after reported missing on Jan. 3, have spoken out in an emotional statement after identifying their 19-year-old son’s body.
“Blaze was a brilliant, colorful, and charismatic man who shined light on all of the lives of the people and communities he touched. Needless to say, our family is devastated by the news,” Gideon Bernstein and Jeanne Pepper said on Wednesday during a press conference in Lake Forest, California.
“We – like so many of you around the world – love Blaze and wanted nothing more than his safe return,” Blaze’s grieving father said.
“We want to thank all of you who so generously gave of your hearts, time, and energy to help us in the search for Blaze over this past week. As this investigation moves from search and rescue to a homicide investigation, we ask for your continued support in providing tips and information to the Orange County Sheriff’s Department,” he continued.
Carrie Braun, a spokeswoman for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, would not confirm to PEOPLE how the pre-med student was killed or what the condition of his body was when it was discovered in Borrego Park in Lake Forest. An autopsy was to be performed on Wednesday.
Authorities are “absolutely killing themselves to bring justice to this family,” Braun said.
The Bernstein family had reported Blaze missing on Jan. 3 after he didn’t make a dental appointment. His parents told police they thought their son was just sleeping in. Blaze was home from college on winter break and was scheduled to return to school that coming Sunday.
Though officials extensively searched Borrego Park for days, Tuesday’s heavy rainfall in the Southern California area was ultimately made Blaze’s body more readily seen by investigators, according to Braun.
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“Our family sends you all of our endless love and thanks for what you have done,” Gideon told reporters before tearfully saying, “We have had people do random acts of kindness and so many friends and family who have reached out to us. It’s unbelievable what you people have done for us and our son in his memory.”
“We ask that you, like my father would’ve done for me, do something that can perpetuate Blaze’s memory, this young, bright soul,” the father of three said.
With his arm wrapped around his wife Jeanne in embrace, he concluded: “This woman has been my rock this past week and our children are so strong and we just want to see resolution.”
Braun said investigators learned that Blaze was either picked up or met a friend at Borrego Park around 11 p.m. on Jan. 2 and “they got separated somehow and the friend told our investigators that Blaze walked off and he didn’t return, and that was the last time the friend said he saw him.”
The friend told investigators Bernstein was heading in the direction of nearby Whiting Ranch Park when he was last seen, Braun says. The friend allegedly drove off at one point and came back to look for Bernstein but couldn’t find him.
It is still unclear if Bernstein had plans to meet someone else in the park.
On Wednesday evening, hundreds of people gathered at Borrego Park in Lake Forest for a candlelight vigil in Blaze’s memory. Meanwhile, on the Philadelphia campus of Blaze’s Ivy League university, students also held a candlelight vigil.
Candlelight vigil being held on campus for U of Penn student 19 y/o Blaze Bernstein whose body was found near his home in California. Officials have ruled case a homicide. Reaction tonight at 10 @FOX29philly pic.twitter.com/hELCdrboxJ
— Chris O’Connell (@CoconnellFox29) January 11, 2018
In a statement, obtained by ABC News, Dr. Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, vice provost for university life at Penn, said, “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, adding that a support session will take place Thursday.
“The Penn I love and cherish is vibrant, caring, and compassionate. Hug your friends and roommates. Practice self-care and empathy. Celebrate who and what you have on this special campus. Find unity and strength, together,” she said.
The family asks that contributions be made to the Blaze Bernstein Memorial Fund at the Jewish Community Foundation Orange County. Donations will be given to the Orangewood Foundation and other organizations that help children and families in needs.