Defendant in Hernandez homicide case pleads not guilty


Three storefronts now for sale in South Central Los Angeles on Wednesday, March 9, 2022. On Sept. 22, 2020 Juan Hernandez, a 21-year-old El Camino College student, came to his job here as a “budtender” for the V.I.P. Collective marijuana dispensary. His body was found nearly two months later at a remote location in the Mojave Desert. (Kim McGill | The Union)

On Wednesday, March 16, Ethan Kedar Astaphan, 28, pled not guilty to first-degree murder of 21-year-old late El Camino College student Juan Carlos Hernandez.

Astaphan was arraigned at Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in downtown Los Angeles in Department 117 and faces a sentence of 25 years to life. Judge Lynn Hobbs presided over the hearing.

Astaphan will return to court on Tuesday, May 3 at 8:30 a.m. for a pre-trial hearing, which will postpone the start of the trial to at least June 17. Astaphan remains in jail on $10 million bail.

Astaphan’s attorney, Larson Hahm, a Los Angeles County deputy public defender, said that he is nearly ready for trial, but was not sure that it would occur in June.

“For sure we want a trial to happen this year,” Hahm said.

Hahm also declined opportunities at this time to comment on the prosecution’s case, mitigating circumstances, or Astaphan’s character, but that this might change in the future. During the preliminary hearing, Hahm also declined an opportunity for Astaphan to speak with The Union.

At this time, Astaphan is being prosecuted individually, although there are two other defendants. Sonita Heng, 22, was originally charged with felony accessory after the fact and faced a state prison sentence of 16 months to three years.

Heng has since become a cooperating witness for the prosecution and accepted a plea deal for 112 days in jail and two years’ probation. Heng served 56 days in jail, which counted as time served with half-time credit.

Heng will be sentenced on May 3 at Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in Dept. 50. During the preliminary hearing, both Heng and her attorney, Mark S. Rafferty, declined an opportunity for an interview with The Union until after the case has concluded.

A third defendant, Weijia Peng, fled to Turkey. The United States attorney filed a complaint against Peng with the federal central district court in California on January 15, 2021, for violation of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution, along with a separate notice of request for detention. Peng has since been detained by Turkish authorities and is fighting extradition to the United States.

Los Angeles County Assistant District Attorney Habib Balian said that if returned to L.A. County custody, Peng would have a separate preliminary hearing but would face a trial with Astaphan as a co-defendant.

On Sept. 22, 2020, Hernandez left his home on Adams Blvd. in South Central Los Angeles to go to work at the V.I.P. Collective marijuana dispensary located in Los Angeles.

In the preliminary hearing held from Feb. 28 to March 2, Balian presented witnesses and evidence alleging that Hernandez’ employers – Peng and Astaphan – killed Hernandez and dumped his body in a remote area of the Mojave Desert.

The V.I.P. Collective dispensary has since been closed and the building where it was located is currently up for sale.