Men accused in slaying of California college student believed he stole from pot shop, prosecutor says

An El Camino College student who worked at an illegal marijuana dispensary in South Los Angeles was killed and dumped in the Mojave Desert because the dispensary’s owner and manager believed he was stealing money and weed, a prosecutor told a Los Angeles Superior Court jury during opening statements of the trial against the two men.

Ethan Kedar Astaphan, 30, of San Gabriel and Weijia “James” Peng, 34, of Alhambra each face one count of murder in the death of Juan Carlos Hernandez. The 21-year-old was killed on Sept. 22, 2020, his body dumped in the desert and found nearly two months later north of Barstow, prosecutor Ethan Milius said on Thursday, Feb. 8.

Defense attorneys representing Astaphan and Peng declined Friday to give an opening statement until the defense’s portion of the trial.

Milius told the jury it would see evidence pointing to Astaphan and Peng in the form of WhatsApp messages and surveillance still frames and video from the dispensary, where he said Hernandez was killed. There will also be cellphone records showing the defendants’ locations, and testimony from Sonita Heng, Peng’s girlfriend at the time, who was allegedly ordered by Peng to drive the men to the shop and out to the desert that night, Milius said.

Heng was initially charged with being an accessory after the fact, but she took a deal in exchange for her testimony and faces 112 days in jail if she testifies truthfully, Milius told the jury.

On Sept. 20, 2020, Astaphan and Peng began exchanging messages after Astaphan said he believed employees were stealing both money and marijuana from the shop, according to messages displayed to jurors.

It is unclear if Hernandez ever took anything.

The messages, found after Astaphan’s arrest, show a progression between the two men that started with talk of firing employees to focusing on Hernandez and having him, as one message says, “crippled for life.”

On the day of the killing, Peng sent Astaphan messages asking if he was ready and well rested, then telling him to “bring a full tank of gas.”

The two men met at Peng’s apartment, where Heng was playing video games. Peng told Heng to drive them to the shop, Milius said.

On Sept. 22, 2020, Hernandez was in the shop with three other men when Astaphan arrived at 10:50 p.m. and Peng walked in at 11 p.m., according to surveillance video still frames. The three other men walked out and shortly after, the man identified as Astaphan, is seen taking Hernandez to the ground and putting him in a chokehold while Peng stands over them.

Heng would later tell a prosecutor that Hernandez was also injected with a dose of ketamine. Prosecutors and detectives alerted the San Bernardino County coroner, which had taken the body after it was found in the desert. The coroner would find a lethal amount of ketamine in Hernandez’s brain tissue, Milius told the jury.

The two men dragged Hernandez’s body to Astaphan’s car behind the shop and put him in the back seat, Milius said.

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Cellphone records show Astaphan, Peng and Heng’s phones pinging on cell towers heading out to the desert.

Heng drove, Milius said, while Peng sat in the passenger seat and Astaphan sat in the back with Hernandez’s body. Heng said at one point Astaphan laughed because Hernandez had urinated himself while he died.

The three were in the remote desert from about 2:15 to 3:30 a.m. on Sept. 23, then traveled back to Astaphan’s San Gabriel apartment before heading back to the dispensary around 6 a.m. to clean the area where Hernandez was killed, Milius said.

Peng later sent Astaphan messages telling him to get a “prem wash combo” on his car and “Keep ur mouth shut.”

Meanwhile, Yajaira Hernandez woke up and couldn’t find her son, who had taken her car to work the previous day, Milius said. She received a message from him that night asking if she needed anything and telling her he’d be home soon.

Later that day, Hernandez filed a missing-person report with Los Angeles police and began a nearly two-month campaign to find her son, making more than 50,000 flyers. She eventually requested surveillance video from the shop, but was told by Astaphan that the cameras don’t record.

Detectives obtained a search warrant for the video and saw the cleanup efforts, Milius said.

“They aren’t doing a full cleanup of the shop,” Milius said. “Their focus is on this particular area where Juan’s body was laying.”

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When detectives tried to look at the previous day’s footage, they found someone had deleted it.

They took it to an expert at the Glendale Police Department, who was unable to recover video from the day of the killing, but did recovered still frames, some of the attack.

About a week after Hernandez’s death, Heng and Peng went to Turkey.  Heng returned alone on Nov. 12, Milius said. Peng was arrested in Turkey and was extradited back to Los Angeles to face the murder charge.

Hernandez’s decomposing body was found by a volunteer with a cadaver dog, his legs torn off by animals below the thighs, Milius said.

Hernandez had hoped to transfer to USC where older brother Joseph had graduated from. He ran marathons, played soccer and volleyball and was involved with robotics in high school.

Hernandez worked at the pot shop to help pay for his El Camino classes, Milius told the jury.

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