Third defendant extradited, arraigned for murder of El Camino student


Yajaira Hernandez, casts a shadow over the location where her son’s remains are at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City, on Nov. 20. Two men are in custody awaiting trial charged with the murder of El Camino engineering student Juan Hernandez. (Kim McGill | The Union)

The third defendant accused of murdering 21-year-old El Camino College student Juan Hernandez was arraigned at Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in Downtown Los Angeles on Monday, Nov. 21.

Shortly after the killing of Hernandez, Weijia Peng fled to Turkey and for nearly two years he has been detained by Turkish authorities while the U.S. Department of Justice and Los Angeles County Office of the District Attorney negotiated for his extradition back to L.A.

Peng was flown back to the U.S. last week and booked into the L.A. County Jail’s Inmate Reception Center, where he is being held on $20 million bail.

On Sept. 22, 2020, Hernandez left his home on Adams Boulevard in South Central Los Angeles to go to work. Hernandez’ mother Yajaira Hernandez, his older brother Joseph and his little brother Gabriel, never saw him again.

There are two other co-defendants: Ethan Kedar Astaphan, who has been in custody since Nov. 19, 2020, and has a bail of $10 million and Peng’s former girlfriend, Sonita Heng, who accepted a plea deal and was released.

Heng appeared as a witness for the prosecution in Astaphan’s preliminary hearing and is expected to testify against Peng and Astaphan at trial.

Astaphan’s trial was scheduled to start in January but he will be asked by the District Attorney’s Office to continue the case in order to combine his prosecution with that of Peng.

Whether or not Astaphan waives his right to start trial will depend on the defense strategy he develops with his lawyer, Los Angeles County public defender Larson Hahm, including whether having separate trials or a combined process would benefit his case.

The Union contacted Hahm by phone but he was not available for comment.

On March 1 and 2, Heng testified during Astaphan’s preliminary hearing that Astaphan and Peng murdered Hernandez by injecting him with a lethal dose of ketamine and dumping his body in a remote section of the Mojave Desert.

According to Heng, they suspected Hernandez of stealing a small amount of marijuana and money from the V.I.P. Collective dispensary previously located at 8113 South Western Ave. in Los Angeles.

The dispensary was owned by Peng and Astaphan was the store manager. Hernandez worked there as a budtender.

Since the investigation into Hernandez’ murder and the subsequent arrests, the unlicensed dispensary has closed.

Yajaira Hernandez was in court on Monday for Peng’s arraignment and explained her reaction to the extradition of Peng to face trial for her son’s murder.

“I don’t even know anymore how I am feeling,” Hernandez said. “I’m so distraught by how many young lives have been destroyed over this. I felt so bad seeing [Peng] in court. But it is what it is.”

Hernandez would have turned 24 on Oct. 15.