Justice for Cookie

How the murder of El Camino College student Juan Hernandez turned his mom into a powerful leader in the growing movement to heal families and communities


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. Hernandez left his home on Adams Boulevard in South Central Los Angeles on Sept. 22, 2020, to go to work. That was the last time Hernandez’s family saw him. (Kim McGill | Warrior Life)

On Sept. 22, 2020, 21-year-old El Camino College engineering student Juan Hernandez left the apartment where he lived nearly his whole life with his mom, stepfather and brothers on Adams Boulevard in South Central Los Angeles to drive to his job at VIP Collective Marijuana Dispensary at 8113 S. Western Ave.

He never came home.

This is not just another story about a missing young person. It’s also a story about a woman who pushed one of the nation’s largest police departments to find her son, and in the process transformed from a mother to a witness, an investigator, a healer and eventually a warrior.


The witness

On February 28, 2022, Yajaira Hernandez stood outside Department 41 at Clara Shortridge Foltz Courthouse in Downtown Los Angeles. Known on the streets and by those who work there as Criminal Court Building or CCB, the massive concrete structure is the largest courthouse in the United States, with 61 courtrooms and 101 holding cells.

Everyone, no matter how powerful, seems small and insignificant amid the worn marble and tacky wood paneling of its hallways and departments. Thousands of people come and go each day. While things slowed dramatically during COVID-19 lockdowns, Hernandez was still among more than two dozen people waiting for their cases to be called.

Her lower face was covered in a black disposable mask – a reality of life under the pandemic – and her brown eyes peered out from behind black rimmed glasses that perched on top of the mask’s upper edge. Her light brown hair was combed neatly to the side, and blonde highlights brushed against her shoulders. She was dressed in a dark jacket and black and white plaid blouse.

She came to court alone, unlike most of the people leaning on others for support or quietly talking.

“I come here so my family doesn’t have to. I want to save them from any more pain,” she says.

Around her neck, she wore a silver chain and heart shaped charm decorated with a photo of Juan, her middle son.

The resemblance between Hernandez and Juan was uncanny – the same features, same eyes, both wearing glasses – except that in the photo Juan was smiling and his mother’s eyes expressed both a fierce determination and a deep sorrow.

Officially, she was in court as a witness for the prosecution in the preliminary hearing of The People vs. Ethan Kedar Astaphan, charged with Juan’s killing. Unofficially, she was in court to ensure that the County of Los Angeles would effectively communicate the evidence she pushed the LAPD to collect.

Juan’s murder had happened nearly 18 months earlier, but the LAPD and L.A. County District Attorney’s Office had not communicated much to Hernandez about the case. She was afraid of what she would hear in court, but also anxious to learn about Juan’s last hours, including why and how he was killed.

Her disappointment was obvious when she was told to leave the courtroom before the start of the hearing. With the exception of the law enforcement officers who lead the investigation, all other witnesses are barred from preliminary hearings and trials in order to protect the integrity of their testimony.

It’s only through reporting by the The Union student-produced newspaper at El Camino College that Hernandez learned that her son was allegedly murdered by the VIP’s owner Weijia Peng and store manager Astaphan, that they dragged Juan, possibly unconscious and alive, from the dispensary into the back of an SUV, that while Peng’s girlfriend Sonita Heng drove, Peng and Astaphan injected Juan with a lethal dose of Ketamine while driving east, then dumped his body off a dirt road in a remote and desolate section of the Mojave Desert, that – as daylight broke – they arrived back at the dispensary to remove evidence and clean the location where Juan struggled on the floor while being choked unconscious, and that later in the day they burned Juan’s belongings on an Orange County beach.

The weight of this information caused her shoulders to slump, and her eyes to shift downward, but she did not shed a single tear.

On May 3, 2022 Hernandez was back at court. She’s was wearing an olive-green sweater with black stars. A large button with Juan’s photo was attached just below her left shoulder. She looked tired and her voice was low and somber.

“People don’t realize that this process is draining. Having to be strong for everyone is exhausting, emotionally and spiritually,” she says. “I wish this system was built differently.”

She doesn’t understand why the process is so slow.

Los Angeles County Assistant District Attorney Habib Balian told her that she doesn’t have to come to every court date. But she feels she needs to be there as much as possible to represent Juan.

There are still many months left in the court proceedings.

Peng, who was extradited from Turkey where he fled not long after Hernandez’s disappearance, did not appear in court until Nov. 21, 2022 for his arraignment.

Pre-trial hearings were regularly held throughout December and the first five months of 2023 to give both Astaphan’s and Peng’s attorneys time to review evidence and prepare a defense. A trial could start in the summer or fall of 2023, but that’s what the D.A.’s office said last spring.

Nothing is certain.

Peng remains in custody on $20 million bail and Astaphan is detained on $10 million bail. Heng, now 23, is out of custody on a plea agreement that includes her testimony as a state witness against Astaphan and Peng.

On January 9, 2023 Astapahan’s defense attorney, L.A. County public defender Larson Hahm, informed the court that Astaphan was married in December, and with permission of the judge he took a photo of Astaphan in order to process a new I.D.

In court on April 4, 2023 Balian said that LAPD Detective Daniel Jaramillo – one of two detectives who investigated Juan’s disappearance – was promoted to serve as assistant to LAPD Chief Michael Moore.

Balian also joked about looking forward to his own retirement.

Life has moved on for most involved in the case, but not for Hernandez, who struggles to heal from the murder of her middle son.

“I’m going to live with this pain forever,” she says. “We should be able to lay my son to rest, pray for his soul and move on. Instead, we’re praying – and fighting – for justice.”


The investigator

“I knew immediately that something was wrong,” Yajaira says about the morning of Sept. 23, 2020.

She woke up at 5 a.m. She always checked her boys’ rooms first. Juan’s younger brother, Gabriel, was still sleeping. When she looked into Juan’s room, his bed was still made, and she says an ominous sensation overtook her. She rushed outside and found that her car was also missing.

“Juan had never not come home. He never ran away. He was never late without a call or text. And I knew he would never take off with my car,” Hernandez says. He knew how much she depended on her car to get to work.

Hernandez checked her phone. She had no missed calls. No texts. Juan didn’t respond to any of her attempts to reach him.

She then called her sister Stephanie Pineda and Juan’s stepfather Mike Burka and asked them to come over. She called other family members and Juan’s friends to see if anyone had heard from him. No one had.

Juan’s best friend said that Juan was supposed to meet up with him but never showed.

Hernandez called the dealership where she bought her car and asked them to track it. They said only the police could do that.

She was becoming frantic. She began to run through possible scenarios. Maybe he’s stranded somewhere without a phone charger. No, he can charge his phone in the car. Maybe he’s been robbed and hurt. Maybe he smoked some weed that was laced with a dangerous substance and he is sick or sleeping it off. Maybe he’s in trouble and afraid to come home.

Hernandez made a bargain with Juan in her head.

“I kept thinking, just come home. No matter what has happened, we can deal with it.”

Pineda and Burka drove to the VIP Collective where Juan worked. They spoke with a security guard they described as a tall, slim, Black male. (The Union confirmed through the physical description, court testimony and evidence presented at a later court hearing that the person they spoke to was Jalen Commissiong who another employee, Daniel Romero, referred to as “T.” According to Daniel, Jalen worked as VIP’s security guard six to seven days a week from 8 a.m. until closing at 10 p.m.)

“Juan left yesterday and we haven’t seen him,” Commissiong says to them.

While her family was at VIP, Hernandez called the Southwest Division of the LAPD. They refused to take a missing person report. They told her that Juan was an adult and had a right to disappear without checking in with his family. The officers said they had to wait at least 48 hours before taking a report.

At noon, Hernandez, Pineda and Burka drove to the LAPD’s Southwest Division on Martin Luther King Boulevard. Again, they said they wanted to report Juan as missing. The LAPD still refused to investigate it as a missing person case. Young people take off from home without calling their mom all the time, the police said.

Hernandez says that the LAPD’s indifference both angered and terrified her.

But, she was a tough mom who had raised three boys and she was convinced that something horrible had happened to her son.

“Then I want to report my car missing,” she told the police and she pushed them to take the report. “I wanted LAPD to help me. I wasn’t going to sit there and do nothing,” Hernandez says.

At about 3:30 p.m., Hernandez, Pineda and Burka went to the dispensary. All three went inside and Hernandez spoke to Commissiong.

“We closed at 10 and he left,” Commissiong told them.

But, Hernandez kept questioning him. Commissiong said he couldn’t remember which way Juan went, if he was walking or driving, or who else was there when he left.

Hernandez said she needed to speak to E., referring to the store manager Astaphan.

“Call him or give me his number.”

According to Hernandez, Commissiong told them the store didn’t “want any trouble” or want “anything to do with the police.”

Hernandez felt that Commissiong was holding back. She thought he was being evasive, refusing to answer questions and becoming increasingly short and aggressive.

“He was rude. You would have thought they (VIP) would be worried,” she says.

Juan never missed work, but no one at the dispensary seemed concerned that he wasn’t there. Astaphan sometimes drove Juan home from work. But he hadn’t called to ask about Juan.

“I knew something was wrong,” Hernandez says. “They were being very sketchy.”

By the time they arrived back home, Hernandez was in full detective mode.

“I felt I had to do the work that the LAPD was refusing to do,” she says.

Juan’s older brother Joseph posted a message to Instagram and Facebook. Hernandez shared it with all school and community groups their family was a part of – the PTA, robotics club, a neighborhood academic enrichment program run by USC, and the running groups Juan and his mom had been a part of since Juan was 14.

“We had a great response from family and friends,” Hernandez says. People started to share the post and asked what else they could do to help.

Hernandez’s phone number was included on the post and within 24 hours, she started getting ransom demands. They terrified her.

One threatened that they had to get the money to them within 30 minutes or they would cut off a finger. Another said they were torturing him in Tijuana. One threat gave her 24 hours to pay or they would kill him. She panicked that Juan got involved in something bigger like trafficking for a cartel.

“I begged Juan not to work at the smoke shop because it was unlicensed,” she says.

But, Hernandez said Juan felt responsible for helping with rent and bills. At the start of the pandemic, he was laid off from his job selling time shares. The nation was shut down and there weren’t many jobs.

Within 48 hours of his disappearance, Juan’s family had gotten four calls and five texts, all from different people claiming they kidnapped him. They asked for between $5,000 and $10,000.

“We didn’t have the money to pay anyone. We live paycheck to paycheck. And when I asked people to put Juan on the phone or send me a recording, no one did,” Hernandez says.

She ended every call and text the same way, “If you do have my son let him know I love him.”

At the same time, dozens of Juan’s supporters were calling the LAPD to file a missing person report, and the pressure worked. Yajaira finally heard from an officer who told her Juan’s disappearance sounded like “foul play.” He promised he would push the missing person unit to investigate.

“That was the first time I felt heard by the LAPD,” Hernandez says.

A friend connected her to a retired detective. He told her to tell the LAPD about the ransom demands.

The LAPD immediately said she shouldn’t have posted anything on social media. She shouldn’t have put her number on any flyer.

“That made me feel like crap,” she says. “Like maybe I put my son in this position.”

But, in the end it was the ransom threats that moved an investigation forward.

In less than 24 hours, LAPD’s Robbery and Homicide Division contacted her. “It was not missing persons or homicide that called,” Hernandez says. “The LAPD cared more about the extortion for money than Juan’s disappearance.”

Five days after Juan’s disappearance, Hernandez met with LAPD robbery detectives Jaramillo and Jennifer Hammer. She showed them the ransom threats, but she also shared her suspicions of the dispensary. She didn’t hear back from them until two weeks later. They said they were investigating.

“By then we were doing our own thing,” Hernandez says.

She and her sons continued to post messages to social media urging people to share any information they had about Juan’s disappearance.

Before Juan went missing, Hernandez posted a few times a month on Instagram, a comical message about falling off the toilet during an earthquake, photos from a birthday dinner with a friend, a one-chip challenge and lots of cat memes. She had been on Instagram since 2012 and had a small following of friends and family. Her posts rarely generated more than twenty likes.

After Juan’s disappearance, she posted several desperate messages on Instagram and Facebook every day urging people to “#helpmefindJuan.” She started getting thousands of views of videos, and hundreds of likes on regular posts.

“I know I may be overwhelming everyone with my posts,” she wrote on September 25. “Unfortunately, this is all I can do to spread the word on my baby boy.”

On Sept. 27, 2020, Telemundo broadcast a story about Juan’s disappearance as well a follow-up story covering a vigil the family organized on Sept. 28.

The family also made 10,000 flyers.

From Sept. 23 to Nov. 18, 2020, hundreds of people came out every day to search the streets, parks and homeless encampments.

They followed up on every tip from downtown L.A. to San Pedro. They attached flyers to thousands of light poles and talked to everyone they saw. They organized a rally at LAPD headquarters.

Hernandez credits the community’s action as “making the difference” in getting the LAPD to investigate.

“I’m very grateful for the community” Hernandez says. “I wouldn’t have been able to do this alone.”

City Councilmember Herb Wesson donated an additional 30,000 flyers. Lamar Advertising Company only charged $900 for 13 billboards that were up for six weeks – a fraction of the usual cost. A Go Fund Me raised thousands of dollars for gas, flyers, shirts and posters.

Nearly two months after Juan’s disappearance, Jaramillo met with Hernandez. He said that the LAPD had worked with the San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department to uncover Juan’s remains in the desert.

“Part of me was relieved that he was found. But knowing he was dead shattered my world,” Hernandez says.

The LAPD told her that they had arrested Astaphan and Heng. They were still looking for Peng.

“I asked if I could see Juan, but they preferred not,” she says.

Juan’s body was badly decomposed, the LAPD told her. It was another month before his body was released and cremated. She and her sons chose a spot for his remains in the garden at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City.


Juan represented one of more than 500,000 people reported missing in the United States in 2020.

According to federal statistics, Los Angeles has the highest number of missing person cases when compared with other U.S. cities. LAPD missing person investigations can be requested and tracked online, although only a fraction of the people reported missing are included.

The California Department of Justice (DOJ) releases annual information on missing persons as reported by law enforcement, and the state’s active missing person cases average about 20,000 on any given day. The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) shares similar data for cases it is investigating across the nation.

This is a fraction of the people who actually disappear that no one notices, or who aren’t reported missing.

California state DOJ policy states that “there is NO waiting period for reporting a person missing. All California police and sheriffs’ departments must accept any report, including a report by telephone, of a missing person, including runaways, without delay and will give priority to the handling of the report.” However, the DOJ only collects data on people reported missing by local law enforcement, and while detailed data and resources exist for missing children, the state has little data on missing people over the age of 18.

L.A. County buries in a mass grave the cremated remains of over 1,500 people a year whose identities are either unknown and/or whose bodies are unclaimed by family. The county holds individuals’ remains for three years to allow family members and loved ones a chance to claim them. In December 2022, L.A. buried the remains of 1,624 people who died in 2019.

“The LAPD made me feel like my son was nobody, like he wasn’t valuable enough to look for. This added so much to the pain and anxiety I was going through,” Hernandez says. “We do the heavy work and they [police] come and sweep up after us.”

Jaramillo and Balian both told The Union that Hernandez’s persistence was the key factor in forcing the investigation forward.

Had she given up hope or been too intimidated to push the system, Juan would still be missing.


The healer

As a young mom, Hernandez, now 43, married Jose Hernandez, her youngest son Gabriel’s father. He adopted Joseph and Juan.

She went to school full-time and worked part-time. She earned an associate’s degree in liberals arts. She started working as at the L.A. County Department of Public Social Services (DPSS).

When the boys were teenagers, they separated but remained good friends.

She was active in her sons’ lives, involving them in sports and science camps and programs that contributed to their academics.

Hernandez’s home just before the end-of-the year holidays in 2022, reflects her love for Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas,” including a tree decorated with ornaments depicting all the characters. She has decorated the walls of each room with inspirational sayings, such as “Family, where life begins.”

On her left arm is a tattoo with her three sons. Juan has a halo above his head and “Til’ I see you again,” written above his head.

After Juan’s murder, she took a leave of absence from work.

“I can’t really say my job was supportive, but thankfully I had a job when I came back,” she says.

On Dec. 21, 2020 Juan’s burial took place at Holy Cross Cemetery in Culver City. Hernandez was back at work on Jan. 4, 2021.

The mortuary had two dates available – Dec. 19 which is her mom’s birthday or her birthday on Dec. 21.

“Life never really stops knocking you down,” she says.

Since Juan’s murder, the changes in her life are numerous.

“I sleep about two to three hours a night. I’m either overeating or not eating anything,” she says. “I get dressed and go to work to set an example for my sons, but a lot of times I want to quit. I’m constantly praying and watching videos of my son [Juan]. One moment I’m OK and another I’m breaking down in tears. There’s a piece missing inside me.”

She thinks often of all the moments in Juan’s life that she will never have – his graduation from college, his wedding, the birth of his children.

“Everything we do as a family – every dinner, every conversation, every joke – I think about how much Cookie would have loved it,” she says.

To help herself heal, she began to heal the community.

On April 30, 2022, Hernandez joined families impacted by violence at a candlelight vigil.

“I’m here to feel supported and support others,” Hernandez says. “Some people are alone, and they turn to alcohol, drugs, the streets to deal with the pain. These are the consequences for the families left behind.”

Speaking to ABC 7 news at the vigil, Hernandez explained that community healing events are essential for her own and others’ healing.

“With other survivors, I’m open and honest I don’t have to hide my pain, I don’t have to hide my emotions. I don’t have to fake a smile for my family. This is for me. This is part of my journey,” she says.

She also recognizes how important it is for her to be among families who have also had a loved one murdered.

“It allows me to be open, to be honest. I don’t have to hide my emotions. I don’t have to fake a smile for my family’s well-being. This is for me.”

To celebrate what would have been Hernandez’s 24th birthday, his family worked with Anytime Runners and Rundalay to organize a five-mile “Run for Cookie” in Griffith Park on Oct. 16, 2022. Hernandez and Juan used to run with the two groups. As a toddler, Juan’s older brother struggled to pronounce his middle name – Carlos. It came out “Cookie” and the nickname stuck.

“My biggest motivator is supporting my mom,” Joseph says. “Every year she tries to figure out how to cope with his birthday. It’s a hard day. This year she thought about having a community event with something that she did with Juan, because their relationship was always through running.”

Rundalay founder Francisco Montes said he saw Juan grow up.

“Even at a young age, Juan stepped up when we needed someone to pace a group. It was amazing to see a 17-year-old wanting to lead 30 people without fear. So, we’re here to celebrate his life, because he impacted a lot of people,” Montes said, holding back tears.

The run raised more than $1,000 to support families of murder victims in L.A.


The warrior

Just past sunrise on April 26, 2022, Hernandez arrived at Fred Robert Park on Honduras just south of Vernon Avenue on the east side of South Central Los Angeles. She leaned against a cement table covered in graffiti scratched into the paint.

“We’ve had enough,” Hernandez says. “All this hate, all this violence needs to stop. If I can help out one family, then my son didn’t die in vain.”

Slowly other people pulled up – mostly mothers and grandmothers – all there because family members had been killed by law enforcement, the streets or violent relationships. They came to travel to Sacramento for the annual Survivors Speak conference and advocacy day at the California state capitol.

Before boarding the charter bus for the eight-hour ride to Sacramento, Hernandez spoke to NBC 4 news.

“Some days are good. Most days are bad,” she says. “When I’m around other victims’ families, I can speak without any regrets, without any shame, without feeling like I’m a burden to them. It’s like a safe space.”

Phillip Lester was one of the people Hernandez met in Sacramento. Standing on the steps leading up to the Capitol, he advocated for more resources for survivors of crime. When he was 14, Lester was shot twice, and then got shot again at 15.

“I got no services or counseling,” Lester says. “I was ejected [from the hospital] right back into the streets.”

Lester also described how survivors go on living in same homes and neighborhoods where their loved one was murdered without any access to counseling or peer support, let alone the ability to move.

“People need help after a traumatic situation. Money must be allocated toward survivors of crime, to the establishment of Trauma Recovery Center run by folks like me in the communities where we come from,” Lester says.

Since Survivors Speaks, Hernandez has begun to speak out more often to the media, public officials and to the community about what’s needed to prevent violence and to help survivors seek justice.

“Every time I share Juan’s story I’m keeping his memory alive,” she says. “I hope that other families hear about us and gain some courage, knowledge and resources from our experience.”

On Sept. 23, 2022, she spoke to more than 100 community residents at Los Angeles Trade Tech College about how to push the police to fully investigate a case and report back regularly on the progress.

“I didn’t know anything about LAPD policies,” says Hernandez to the audience, and encourages them not to give up no matter how badly they are ignored or dismissed. “If we don’t fight for our loved ones, no one will. The system won’t do it for us.”

Reflecting on the past two years, Hernandez carries a lot of pain, but no regrets.

“Like all my kids, I fought for Juan when he was alive,” she says. “And, when he was murdered, I did everything possible to find him and bring him home.”


Editor’s Note:

Deck and tags were added for completeness on Thursday, May 18, at 1:30 a.m.