The student news site of El Camino College

El Camino College The Union

The student news site of El Camino College

El Camino College The Union

The student news site of El Camino College

El Camino College The Union

Defendant indicted in the murder of El Camino student

On Nov. 20, 2022, Yajaira Hernandez and her oldest son, Joseph Hernandez, visit the place where the remains of her middle son, Juan Hernandez, are laid to rest at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City on Sept. 22, 2020. Hernandez left his home on Adams Boulevard in South Central Los Angeles to go to work. That was the last time Hernandez’s family saw him. (Kim McGill | The Union)

On Nov. 10, 2022, a 23-member grand jury at Clara Shortridge Foltz Courthouse in Downtown Los Angeles determined there was enough evidence to indict Weijia Peng for the murder of El Camino College student Juan Carlos Hernandez, 21.

Peng, who was extradited from Turkey where he fled not long after Hernandez’s disappearance, did not appear in court.

Since then, the case against Peng, 33, and another defendant, Ethan Astaphan, 27, has inched forward, pushing back the possible start of the trial to summer or fall 2023.

On Sept. 22, 2020, Hernandez left his home on Adams Boulevard in South Central LA for work at VIP Collective, an unlicensed marijuana dispensary.

That was the last time Hernandez’s mother, his older brother Joseph and his little brother Gabriel, ever saw him.

Nearly two months later on Nov. 15, San Bernardino County Sheriff’s deputies found Hernandez’s body in a remote section of the Mojave Desert.

Peng remains in custody on $20 million bail and Astaphan is detained on $10 million bail. Both men are being held at North County Correctional Facility, a LA County jail in Castaic.

A third defendant in the case, Sonita Heng, 23, is out of custody on a plea agreement that includes her testimony as a state witness against Astaphan and Peng.

Peng appeared in court for the first time on Nov. 21, 2022, for his arraignment before Judge Ricardo Ocampo. He was represented by Jesse Ruiz, private defense counsel retained by Peng, and pled not guilty to one count of first-degree murder.

On Dec. 7, 2022, Assistant District Attorney Habib Balian motioned the court to consolidate Peng’s and Astaphan’s cases. Balian said he submitted the motion to “save court costs, to prevent witnesses having to repeat testimony at two trials, and for convenience.”

Judge Mark Hanasono granted the prosecution’s motion for consolidation on Jan. 9, which combined the two cases into one. Neither Astaphan’s attorney – LA County deputy public defender Larson Hahm – nor Ruiz objected.

The two defendants now share one case number, and barring future plea agreements which have not been negotiated thus far, Astaphan and Peng will stand trial together.

Peng was represented by a different defense attorney, Ronald D. Hedding on Feb. 9. Ruiz also appeared in court and indicated he had transferred the case files to Hedding.

This slowed proceedings further as Hedding indicated he would need time to review the files, investigate the evidence and interview witnesses.

In the hallway outside the courtroom, Ruiz did not look happy.

“This is not what I wanted,” he said. Ruiz added that Hedding was retained by Peng’s family.

After the hearing, Hedding said he would not comment on the case, but said he has defended people in “too many homicide cases to count.”

On April 4, Hedding said he was still reviewing the exchanged information and needed more time to prepare. Hahm said he was still building the defense strategy for Astaphan.

Both defendants again waived time guaranteeing their rights to a “speedy trial,” and the case was granted a delay in the proceedings until May 9.

Life has moved on for many people involved in the case, but not for the victim’s mother, Yajaira Hernandez, who struggles to heal from the murder of her middle son.

Hernandez said she wouldn’t be able to move past the constant pain caused by her middle son’s murder until the trial is over.

“I want to give up because I lost Juan, but I’m here for two more [sons],” Hernandez said. “I put on a brave face so my loved ones don’t worry about me. One moment I’m okay and another I’m breaking down in tears,” she added.

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