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

Hernandez murder trial: Phone messages and security video frames reveal possible motive

On Feb. 14, 2024, Glendale Police Department Detective Juan Giraldo waits to testify outside Department 117 at Clara Shortridge Foltz Criminal Justice Center in Downtown L.A. A specialist in computer forensics for the Verdugo Regional Crime Laboratory, Giraldo was able to recover images from deleted videos that showed an attack on Juan Hernandez by the VIP dispensary’s owner, Weijia Peng, and manager, Ethan Astaphan. (Kim McGill | The Union)

Messages between Ethan Astaphan and Weijia “James” Peng, two men on trial for the murder of El Camino College student Juan Hernandez, reveal they suspected Hernandez of stealing from them.

LAPD Robbery and Homicide Detective Jennifer Hammer testified on Feb. 14 on the WhatsApp messages exchanged between Peng and Astaphan, obtained by the police through a search warrant.

Los Angeles County Public Defender Larson Hahm for Astaphan and private defense counsel Ronald Hedding for Peng agreed in court that the messages were recovered from the cell phone records of their clients.

Hernandez worked at the VIP Collective LA marijuana dispensary in South Los Angeles owned by Peng and managed by Astaphan.

According to Hammer, on Sept. 16, 2020, Peng and Astaphan discussed concerns that dispensary staff might be stealing money or product.

Peng instructed Astaphan to review footage on the VIP dispensary’s digital video recorder.

Over several messages, Astaphan described suspicious behavior between the “security guard” and unnamed budtenders. Astaphan sent Peng video clips that were no longer available to view once the LAPD accessed the records.

“Bro, there is so much,” Astaphan wrote. “I think they’re all stealing.”

They went back and forth considering who was involved.

“If you got a video on Juan that would be good,” Peng wrote.

Astaphan returned the DVR to the shop but the two continued to monitor the activity in the dispensary through remote access.

Two days before Hernandez went missing, Peng sent a message to Astaphan saying that they needed to “formulate a plan.”

On Sept. 21, 2020 at 4:03 a.m., Peng sent the following message: “I want to fuck this kid up so bad. Don’t want them to get scared and run.”

After that, Astaphan deleted several messages.

At 4:18 a.m., Peng wrote, “We talk later about plan. So far, I’m thinking about Juan.”

Astaphan messaged back: “kk. He a definite.”

On Sept. 22, 2020 at 6:01 p.m., Peng wrote to Astaphan, “Are you ready, well rested?”

Astaphan agreed to meet.

Peng messaged back, “You’re the only muscle. I have the plan.

“I got my sleep,” Astaphan wrote.

Peng wrote, “If tonight, let’s get it over with.”

Later, Peng told Astaphan to meet him at 8:45 p.m. but then changed the time to 9 p.m. because he was running late.

“Bring a full tank of gas and the black clock,” Peng wrote.

At this point in the testimony, L.A. County Assistant District Attorney Habib Balian looked up from the pages of WhatsApp messages he had been reviewing and asked Hammer, by “clock,” what did she think Peng was referring to?

Hammer said she believed it was a typo, and that he was referring to a “glock.” A glock refers to a hand gun named after its manufacturer, Gaston Glock.

Balian said that the letters g and c are close together when typing or texting.

“Yes,” Hammer agreed.

On the morning of Sept. 23, 2020 at 7:24 a.m., Peng messaged Astaphan to “get gas and wash at Baldwin exit.”

Astaphan responded that he would get a “detail in and out.”

“Keep your mouth shut and 1 800 NO CUFFS,” wrote Peng.

Hammer testified that “1 800 NO CUFFS” referred to the name and phone number for an Encino law firm that specializes in criminal defense.

A little after midnight on the morning of Sept. 24, 2020, Astaphan messaged: “You bringing wood? Fire starter?”

When Peng indicated he didn’t have those supplies, Astaphan added, “SMH so what did you plan?”

SMH refers to the text message abbreviation for “shaking my head.”

“Stop wasting time, it’s getting late already,” Peng wrote. “You got the cooler. Put that bag in there. We going to the beach.”

Hammer said Glendale PD Detective Juan Giraldo helped recover videos from Sept. 22 and 23, 2020, from the dispensary’s DVR; no one at the LAPD had the technology to do it.

Giraldo, a specialist in computer forensics for the Glendale Police Department and the Verdugo Regional Crime Laboratory, took the stand on Feb. 14 and 15.

Among the video frames Giraldo recovered the details of the night of Sept. 22, 2020, in the minutes after 11:07 p.m. when Astaphan and Peng were alone in the dispensary with Hernandez.

The video footage included two images of Astaphan pinning Hernandez’s motionless body to the floor in an apparent chokehold as Peng lowered himself down toward Hernandez’s lower legs.

In one frame, Peng has something in his right hand.

Originally, Hammer said, she thought it might have been a cell phone.

Later, when she learned of the possible use of ketamine, she said she believed it was a syringe, and that Peng was crouching down to inject Hernandez’s lower leg.

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