Preliminary hearing of defendant in Hernandez case tells more about means and motive

Juan Hernandez, a 21-year-old El Camino College student in engineering, went missing from his Adams Blvd home on Sept. 22, 2020. Almost two months later, Hernadez’ body was found in the Mojave Desert on Nov. 15, 2020.

Los Angeles County Assistant District Attorney Habib Balian presented the prosecution’s case concerning what happened to Hernandez during a preliminary hearing in the case of the People of California vs. Ethan Kedar Astaphan, held from Monday, Feb. 28 to Wednesday, March 2, 2022, at Clara Shortridge Foltz Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles. The hearing was conducted by Department 41 Judge Michael E. Pastor.

Daniel Romero testified Hernandez and he both worked at V.I.P Collective dispensary. “budtenders,”Responsible for receiving cash payments from customers in return for marijuana products. Romero stated that Astaphan, the defendant, was their supervisor.

Balian showed Romero two photos taken after 11 p.m. on Sept. 22 that were recovered from the dispensary’s digital video recorder (DVR). Romero identified Hernandez, and Astaphan in the first photo.

Romero said that Astaphan was lying on top of Hernandez, appearing to have his full weight on Hernandez’ back and legs, with his right arm wrapped around Hernandez’ neck. Romero couldn’t identify the man standing to the left and Hernandez.

Los Angeles County’s superior courts are welcoming back crowds after two years of closed court, postponed hearings, and canceled trials because of COVID-19. Ethan Kedar Astaphan is charged with killing Juan Hernandez, a 21-year old ECC engineering student. The Union| The Union.

Sonita Heng (22 years old) identified the third man in this photo as Weijia Peng. He is her boyfriend and the owner of the V.I.P. Collective.

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Heng testified that Peng had sold cocaine and ketamine to customers outside of the marijuana dispensary. She also testified Peng kept a vial Ketamine inside a blue box in her kitchen cupboard. She knew it was a tranquilizer.

About a month before Hernandez’ disappearance, Heng testified that Peng began to complain that his money from the dispensary was “coming up short,”From $10,000 to $20,000. Heng claimed that Peng also shared his suspicions about Astaphan.

Heng testified on the night Sept. 22, 2020 that Astaphan came to their Alhambra apartment and was talking to Peng in their living room. “I heard James say he’s going to get rid of Juan,”Heng said. She also claimed that Peng was holding a blue box containing ketamine.

“Did you ever hear James use the term kill Juan?”Heng was asked by Balian.

“No,”Heng said. “I only heard James saying ‘we need to get rid of him.’”

Heng said the three of them left the apartment and got into Astaphan’s black Mercedes SUV. They arrived at V.I.P. Collective told Peng that Heng should park in the alley behind the shop when they got to V.I.P. Peng and Astpahan entered the shop at 11 p.m., Sept. 22, 2020.

Heng stated that Peng instructed her to be cautious when approaching the back of the shop, as their vehicle was directly behind the dispensary.

Heng testified that she heard a sound behind and saw Peng dragging Hernandez from the shop by Astaphan. Heng stated, “His legs, his butt and his lower back,”They were lying on the ground. Hernandez’ hands were zip-tied in front of him. Heng stated that Hernandez was lifted into the back seat by Heng. “sitting position.”

“Was Juan making any noises at all?”Heng was asked by Balian to testify.

“No,”Heng said this as she was crying.

Heng testified that Peng had told her to drive towards Las Vegas. On the way, she said Astaphan cracked Hernandez’ phone and threw it out the window.

Heng claimed that Astaphan was given the vial by Peng, which she identified as ketamine along with a syringe. She also testified that Peng asked Astaphan to tell him where he had injected him. Astaphan responded, “His eyeball.”

Heng estimates that they drove for approximately two hours before Peng instructed them to stop on the freeway. Heng stated that the road was paved. “rocky and bumpy”This made it difficult for her drive. There were no lights. No buildings. “It was pitch dark,”Heng said.

Heng stated that Astaphan and Peng took Hernandez from their car and then vanished. Peng and Astapahan returned to the car later, but Hernandez was not visible.

Heng said the three of them drove back to the dispensary, cleaned the area where Hernandez had allegedly been choked, removed Hernandez’ glasses and drove Hernandez’ car away from the shop.

Balian played a video clip that showed a woman Heng identified as herself, along with two men she identified both as Astaphan (and Peng) cleaning the area of the shop in which earlier photos had shown Astaphan sitting on top of Hernandez.

Heng said that the day after the killing she, Peng and Astaphan drove to Bolsa Chica beach, lit a bonfire and burned Hernandez’ backpack, glasses, wallet and the paper towels used to clean up the scene.

Daniel Jaramillo, Los Angeles County Police Department (LAPD) detective in the Robbery-Homicide Division, Robbery Special Section testified that the LAPD found Hernandez’s car parked in the 6400 block of Figueroa at 2:35 a.m. on Sept. 24.

Jennifer Hammer, a LAPD detective in Robbery-Homicide Division testified that she had submitted more than 60 warrants to the case, one for V.I.P. Collective where she claimed that the LAPD retrieved the DVR on September 29, 2020.

Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal justice center sits to left of Los Angeles City Hall in downtown Los Angeles, seen here on Tuesday, March 1, 2022. On Sept. 22, 2020, 21-year-old El Camino College engineering student Juan Carlos Hernandez left from his home on Adams Blvd. in South Central Los Angeles to go to work at the V.I.P. Collective marijuana dispensary at 8113 South Western Avenue. Two months later, his body was found in the Mojave Desert. On Feb. 28 to March 2 the preliminary hearing in the case of the People of California vs. Ethan Kedar Astaphan is being heard here in Department 41, Judge Michael E. Pastor presiding. Photo by Kim McGIll / The Union.Ethan Kedar Astaphan had his preliminary hearing at Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center Los Angeles City Hall, Tuesday, March 1, 2022. Juan Hernandez, 21, an El Camino College engineering student, was reported missing from his Adams Blvd home on Sept. 22, 2020. Hernadez was found murdered almost two months later, in Nov. 2020. The Union| The Union.

Hammer stated that all images recorded before Sept. 23 at 6:30 a.m. were lost when Hammer examined the DVR. Only the video of Peng Heng, Astaphan and Astaphan cleaning the shop floors remained.

Hammer testified that she gave her DVR to a forensic expert who was able recover still images from other recordings including the two photos of Astaphan on top of Hernandez while Peng watched.

Hammer testified that she determined from cell tower records that Astaphan, Peng and Heng’s phones traveled the freeway and street routes that corresponded with Heng’s description of events.

Balian earlier in the hearing entered those records as evidence. He outlined the routes of three phones between the night of September 22 and the early hours of Sept. 23 from the areas around the dispensary to San Bernardino County’s Mojave Desert and back.

Hammer testified that through a warrant, she received records from Astaphan’s phone which was recovered during his arrest on Nov. 19, 2020.

Hammer testified to numerous WhatsApp text messages between Peng, Astaphan, and Peng.

A message regarding the alleged dispensary theft sent by Astaphan on Sept. 20, 2020 indicated that Astaphan believed Romero or Hernandez.

A message from Peng’s phone read, “If you got a video of Juan, then we’re good.”

According to reports, the two discussed punishments for theft, including. “have him crippled for life,” according to a message from Peng’s phone.

Using the cell tower evidence, Hammer followed the route to the Mojave Desert and Hernandez’ body was found on Nov. 15, 2020.

Dr. Brian Hutchins, a Forensic Pathologist with the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, testified that he and other specialists conducted an autopsy of the body on Nov. 15, 2020.

Hutchins stated that the body was showing signs of exhibiting “severe decomposition.”

The body was identified by Hernandez on Nov 16, 2020, after being lifted with Mikrosil casting.

Hutchins stated that he couldn’t determine the cause of death due to the state in which the body was. The LAPD shared photos of Astaphan sitting on top Hernandez and asked Hutchins if he could determine if he had been strangled. Hutchins couldn’t check for strangulation-related hemorhaging and other conditions.

The toxicology report also found no evidence of marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamine and alcohol. These are the only substances that are regularly tested.

Hutchins said that further investigation of the body revealed a lethal dose of ketamine in Hernandez’ system, containing 3,800 nanograms per gram. He also stated that the lethal doses for ketamine injections into muscle begin at 3,200 nanograms.

Astaphan’s defense attorney, Larson Hahm, a Los Angeles County deputy public defender, submitted a motion to the court for dismissal of the charges based on insufficient evidence. Pastor opposed that motion.

Pastor informed Astaphan about his arraignment on March 16th at 8:30 AM in Department 117.

The Union News spoke separately outside of the hearing to both Hahm and Balian regarding Astaphan’s charges. Both men stated that Astaphan faces a maximum sentence of 25 years to live for one count under penal code 187(a), which is first-degree murder, without any plea deal. Balian also said that the D.A.’s office is not alleging special circumstances which would have subjected Astaphan to a possible sentence of life without parole or the death penalty.

On Monday, Feb. 28, Yahaira Hernandez stands outside Department 41 at Clara Shortridge Foltz Justice Center, Los Angeles County's largest superior courthouse, located on West Temple St. in downtown Los Angeles. She is here to testify at the preliminary hearing of Ethan Kedar Astaphan who is accused of killing her son. On Sept. 22, 2020, 21-year-old El Camino College engineering student Juan Carlos Hernandez left from his home on Adams Blvd. in South Los Angeles to go to work at the V.I.P. Collective marijuana dispensary at 8113 South Western Avenue. For 17 months, Hernandez’ family and friends have wondered what really happened to the young man who went to work one afternoon and never came home. Photo by Kim McGill / The Union.Yajaira Hernandez is seen outside Clara Shortridge Foltz Justice Center, downtown Los Angeles, on Monday, February 28th. Hernandez is at the preliminary hearing with Ethan Kedar Astaphan. Astaphan is accused of her son’s murder. For 17 months, Hernandez’ family and friends have wondered what really happened to the young man who went to work one afternoon and never came home. The Union| The Union.

Several weeks after Hernandez’ death, Heng and Peng fled to Turkey. Peng was captured on November 19, 2020. Peng returned to Turkey about a month later.

Peng was eventually held in Turkey and is currently fighting extradition.

At the start of the preliminary hearing, Heng’s attorney, Mark S. Rafferty, notified the court that Heng was a cooperating witness for the prosecution and had accepted a plea deal for 112 days in jail and two years’ probation.

Heng was in jail for 56 days, which counted towards half-time credit. She was originally charged initially with Calif. Penal Code Sec. 32, felony accessory following the fact and was sentenced to a 16-month to three-year state prison term.

Heng said she was not offered a specific deal from the District Attorney’s office until January of 2021, weeks after she made a statement to Balian, Jaramillo and Hammer.

Heng will be sentenced at Clara Shortridge Foltz Courthouse, Dept. 50.

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