Family and friends gather to remember ECC student’s death one year later

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A year ago on Sept. 22, 2020, 21-year-old El Camino College student, Juan Carlos Hernandez-better known to those closest to him as “Cookie”-was murdered sometime after his night shift inside a Los Angeles dispensary where he worked. His body was later discovered buried in a shallow grave in a remote area of the Mojave Desert on Nov. 15, 2020-about a month later from what would have been his 22nd birthday, according to a District Attorney’s press release. On Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, family and friends reunited during a Memorial Mass to honor his memory at the Saint Vincent de Paul Parish in Los Angeles. As part of the memorial, the Hernandez family would travel to the dispensary site where they would place a sidewalk memorial and make a final stop at the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery to place flowers and decorate the tombstone where a portion of Hernandez’s ashes lie. Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union Photo credit: Jose Tobar

A year ago on Sept. 22, 2020, 21-year-old El Camino College student, Juan Carlos Hernandez was murdered sometime after his night shift inside a Los Angeles dispensary where he worked ended.

Hernandez, better known to those closest to him as “Cookie,” was an engineering major while attending ECC. He had plans to transfer to USC and graduate from there like his older brother, Joseph Hernandez had before him.

An altar for Juan Carlos Hernandez adorns the entrance to the church pulpit at the Saint Vincent de Paul Parish in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021.
An altar with a cardboard cutout of Juan Carlos “Cookie” Hernandez’s image and urn adorns the entrance to the church pulpit at the Saint Vincent de Paul Parish in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. The altar was designed by Classroom of Compassion’s David Maldonado and Noah Reich, a nonprofit based in Los Angeles. Hernandez’s aunt, Stephanie Pineda, said during a phone interview that Hernandez got his nickname “Cookie” when he was still a baby. “His brother Joseph, when he was young could never pronounce his name right,” Pineda said. “Joseph started calling him cookie. Ever since then we all began to call him [that] since he was a baby.” Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union
Juan Carlos Hernandez's mother, Yajaira Hernandez,
Juan Carlos Hernandez’s mother, Yajaira Hernandez, prays during the memorial mass held in remembrance of her son at the Saint Vincent de Paul Parish in Los Angeles on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union Photo credit: Jose Tobar

However on Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, his body was discovered by the authorities in a remote area of the Mojave Desert buried in a shallow grave, according to a District Attorney’s press release.

That same year on Oct. 15, he would have turned 22-year-old.

Juan Carlos Hernandez&squot;s aunt, Stephanie Pineda, left, prepares a set of balloons that read "Forever in Our Hearts" while her son, Nathan Melendez, 11, looks on during the Memorial Mass in Hernandez&squot;s honor on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021.
Juan Carlos Hernandez’s aunt, Stephanie Pineda, left, prepares a set of balloons that read “Forever in Our Hearts” while her son, Nathan Melendez, 11, looks on during the Memorial Mass in Hernandez’s honor on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. “I knew the 22nd was going to be a difficult day for my sister,” Pineda said. “I took the initiative to prepare the mass for Juan…and tried to make that memorial mass as smooth as possible for my sister. That day was a difficult day to relive every moment we went through a year ago. It was very important form me that my sister had the support of her love ones. The memorial was was important to celebrate Juan’s life, to honor him.” Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union Photo credit: Jose Tobar
Juan Carlos Hernandez's mother, Yajaira Hernandez, receives a hug from a woman at the conclusion of the mass memorial at the Saint Paul de Vincent Parish in Los Angeles. Her sister Stephanie Pineda, far right, stands back with hands clasped. Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union
Juan Carlos Hernandez’s mother, Yajaira Hernandez, receives a hug from a woman at the conclusion of the mass memorial at the Saint Paul de Vincent Parish in Los Angeles. Her sister Stephanie Pineda, far right, stands back with hands clasped. “Losing my nephew has been difficult because it has changed everything,” Pineda said. “I lost someone close to me. We had a very close relationship as aunt and nephew. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of him. It feels like yesterday. It doesn’t even feel [like] a year. It’s difficult to talk about him or think of a memory without having a tear drop go down buy face or having a knot in my throat. His loss is something that I will never get over…There’s always that “what if” question. Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union

On Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021, family and friends reunited during a Memorial Mass to honor his memory at the Saint Vincent de Paul Parish in Los Angeles.

As part of the memorial, the Hernandez family would travel to the dispensary site where they would place a sidewalk memorial and make a final stop at the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery to place flowers and decorate the tombstone where a portion of Hernandez’s ashes lie.

Yajaira Hernandez led the memorial with the full support of her family and friends, just as they had in previous efforts to find her son.

Joseph Hernandez, Juan Carlos Hernandez's older brother, carries the urn that holds his brother's ashes outside the Saint Vincent de Paul Parish at the end of the memorial mass held in his honor. Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union
Joseph Hernandez, 24, Juan Carlos Hernandez’s older brother, carries the urn that holds his brother’s ashes outside the Saint Vincent de Paul Parish at the end of the memorial mass held in his honor. “Our family had previous conversations of what to do when it was our time,” Yajaira Hernandez said. “We all decided that cremation was what we were gonna do. This was something we all have agreed to. So yes, Juan’s wishes were to be cremated. Half of his ashes are in that urn that I keep at home…To me [that urn] represents a never ending cycle of life.” Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union Photo credit: Jose Tobar
Juan Carlos Hernandez&squot;s father, Jose Hernandez, takes a balloon from Stephanie Pineda on the lawn of the Saint Vincent de Paul Parish in Los Angeles. The balloons with the inscription "Forever in Our Hearts" will be released
Juan Carlos Hernandez’s father, Jose Guadalupe Hernandez, takes a balloon from Stephanie Pineda on the lawn of the Saint Vincent de Paul Parish in Los Angeles. The balloons with the inscription “Forever in Our Hearts” will be released in a symbolical gesture honoring his memory outside the church grounds. Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union Photo credit: Jose Tobar
Family members and friends release balloons into the sky in a symbolic gesture honoring the memory of murdered El Camino College student, Juan Carlos Hernandez outside the church grounds at the Saint Vincent de Paul Parish on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. We released the balloons as a symbol of our love for Juan. Sending our love, our prayers and thoughts," Hernandez&squot;s mother Yajaira Hernandez said. "It represents family, unity and love. Every balloon that was released had a little bit of our pain in it. The loss of an amazing son, brother, cousin and friend."
Family members and friends release balloons into the sky in a symbolic gesture honoring the memory of murdered El Camino College student, Juan Carlos Hernandez outside the church grounds at the Saint Vincent de Paul Parish on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. We released the balloons as a symbol of our love for Juan. Sending our love, our prayers and thoughts,” Hernandez’s mother Yajaira Hernandez said. “It represents family, unity and love. Every balloon that was released had a little bit of our pain in it. The loss of an amazing son, brother, cousin and friend.” Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union Photo credit: Jose Tobar
Six-year-old Erick Melendez, wanders outside the dispensary's storefront where his cousin, Juan Carlos Hernandez was murdered on Sept. 22, 2020. Melendez was very close to Juan and two would spend time together almost everyday, Yajaira Hernandez said. Hernandez's family friends will place a sidewalk memorial outside its wall. Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union
Six-year-old Erick Melendez, wanders outside the dispensary’s storefront where his cousin, Juan Carlos Hernandez was murdered on Sept. 22, 2020. Melendez was very close to Juan and two would spend time together almost every day, Yajaira Hernandez said. Hernandez’s family friends will place a sidewalk memorial outside its wall. Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union Photo credit: Jose Tobar
Members and friends of the Hernandez family prepare to tape a printed poster with three images of Juan Carlos Hernandez over the wall outside the dispensary where he worked and was allegedly murdered by suspects Ethan Kedar Astaphan, Sonita Heng and Weijia Peng on Sept. 22, 2020. The case is ongoing. Astaphan and Hang were eventually captured and arrested last November. Peng is currently in custody in Turkey where he is attempting to fight his extradition to the United States. "All year I wanted to go back to the last place [Juan] took his last breath," Juan Hernandez&squot;s mother, Yajaira Hernandez, said. "That place was where we wanted to do a small vigil and pray for Juan&squot;s soul."
Members and friends of the Hernandez family prepare to tape a printed poster with three images of Juan Carlos Hernandez over the wall outside the dispensary where he worked and was allegedly murdered by suspects Ethan Kedar Astaphan, Sonita Heng and Weijia Peng on Sept. 22, 2020. The case is ongoing. Astaphan and Hang were eventually captured and arrested last November. Peng is currently in custody in Turkey where he is attempting to fight his extradition to the United States. “All year I wanted to go back to the last place [Juan] took his last breath,” Juan Hernandez’s mother, Yajaira Hernandez, said. “That place was where we wanted to do a small vigil and pray for Juan’s soul.” Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union
Family and friends gather around Juan Carlos Hernandez's grave where Jose Guadalupe Hernandez, far right, attaches a floral bouquet with his son's name to the tombstone where some of his ashes are buried at the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Culver City. Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union
Family and friends gather around Juan Carlos Hernandez’s grave where Jose Guadalupe Hernandez, far right, attaches a floral bouquet with his son’s name to the tombstone where some of his ashes are buried at the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Culver City. While describing Juan Carlos Hernandez’s father, Yajaira Hernandez said: “I see a man who los his son…A man who is filled with so much pain but hides it because he has to be strong for his other two sons. I see a grieving father.” Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union Photo credit: Jose Tobar
Shortly after Juan Carlos Hernandez&squot;s disappearance on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, his mother, Yajaira Hernandez got a tattoo on her right shoulder of a dandelion with its seeds blowing into the wind that turn into hummingbirds. A couple of months ago, Yajaira Hernandez said she got the anime like portraits of her three sons tattooed next to it. "The dandelion flower means resilience to me, pure and innocent. Which is how I viewed my son. I got it hoping that I would be reunited again with Juan one day, whether it be here or in heaven," Hernandez said. "The color one is a picture of my three sons in anime form. Juan loved Naruto growing up and &squot;till last year he still watched it. So getting these tattoos I feel my son closer to me and will carry them with me &squot;till my last breath." Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union
Shortly after Juan Carlos Hernandez’s disappearance on Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, his mother, Yajaira Hernandez got a tattoo on her right shoulder of a dandelion with its seeds blowing into the wind that turn into hummingbirds. A couple of months ago, Yajaira Hernandez said she got the anime like portraits of her three sons tattooed next to it. “The dandelion flower means resilience to me, pure and innocent. Which is how I viewed my son. I got it hoping that I would be reunited again with Juan one day, whether it be here or in heaven,” Hernandez said. “The color one is a picture of my three sons in anime form. Juan loved Naruto growing up and ’till last year he still watched it. So getting these tattoos I feel my son closer to me and will carry them with me ’till my last breath.” Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union
Juan Carlos Hernandez's family poses for a photo next to his tombstone at the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Culver City toward the end of the memorial mass held in his honor on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. From left to right: Jose Guadalupe Hernandez (father), Yajaira Hernandez (mother), Joseph Hernandez , 22, and Gabriel Hernandez, 18.
Juan Carlos Hernandez’s family poses for a photo next to his tombstone at the Holy Cross Catholic Cemetery in Culver City toward the end of the memorial mass held in his honor on Wednesday, Sept. 22, 2021. From left to right: Jose Guadalupe Hernandez (father), Yajaira Hernandez (mother), and his brothers, Joseph Hernandez, 24, and Gabriel Hernandez, 18. “One year ago my life was shattered in a blink of an eye,” Yajaira Hernandez said. “I had to fight the system in order for them to help me find Juan. I jumped through circle and asked for the help from my family and my community. I started a hashtag #helpmefindjuan to put pressure on LAPD to do their job. My gut told me from day one that the dispensary had something to do with my baby’s disappearance and the first week no one believed me. I was grateful to have an army to help me bring my son home. I was grateful to have been able to be my son’s voice. Today, I continue fighting to bring justice to my son. I am still doing all I can so that those who took his life pay for what they did. Nothing will ever bring my son back and I will live with a hole in my heart forever. Losing my son has destroyed me and has changed me in so many ways. I am just grateful and blessed to have a family who loves and supports me unconditionally and who walks side by side with me. Juan is gone in body but his spirit will live forever through those who love and miss him.” Photo by Jose Tobar/The Union Photo credit: Jose Tobar

Editors note: Photo alignment and photo captions appearing outside of caption box were corrected on Wednesday, Sept. 29 at 10:35 p.m.