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LA marijuana dispensary owner, manager guilty of murder in student’s slaying

The owner of a South Los Angeles marijuana dispensary and the shop’s manager were convicted of first-degree murder  Monday, Feb. 26, for killing an employee before burying his body in the Mojave Desert, where it went undiscovered for nearly two months in 2020.

The Los Angeles Superior Court jury needed less than three hours to convict Ethan Kedar Astaphan, 30, of San Gabriel and Weijia “James” Peng, 34, of Alhambra in the slaying of 21-year-old Juan Carlos Hernandez of Los Angeles on Sept. 22, 2020.

Jurors also found true an allegation that Peng used a deadly weapon, a syringe containing ketamine while committing the crime.

Hernandez was an El Camino College student with plans to follow in his brother’s footsteps and transfer to USC, his mother, Yajaira Hernandez has said.

“I’m sad my son is not coming back,” Hernandez said outside the courtroom following the reading of the verdicts. “I’m glad they got caught and they’ll be paying for what they did. Now we’re just figuring out what’s next and how to heal.”

Yajaira Hernandez filed a missing person’s report with Los Angeles police after noticing her son never came home from work following that Sept. 22 shift. She and other family members made thousands of flyers and distributed them across the city for nearly two months until Juan Hernandez’s body was found by a volunteer and a cadaver dog just off the 15 Freeway, Nov. 15, 2020.

Peng owned the illegally-operating dispensary, VIP Collective LA, in the 8100 block of Western Avenue, and Astaphan managed the shop. They were scheduled to be sentenced on April 25.

Astaphan’s attorney, Larson Hahm, said during closing arguments that he argued for a second-degree murder conviction because circumstantial evidence showed the murder wasn’t pre-planned. Peng’s attorney, Ronald Hedding, declined to disclose his argument to jurors. Closing arguments in the case took place Friday.

Prosecutors argued Astaphan and Peng killed Hernandez because they believed he was stealing money and weed from the dispensary. Prosecutors presented several WhatsApp messages exchanged between Astaphan and Peng in the two days leading up to the murder in which they first discussed firing every employee, then focused on Hernandez after Astaphan claimed he saw the victim making deals for customers during a shift.

Whether Hernandez actually stole anything was not known.

The defendants discussed making an example of Hernandez, with Peng at one point saying he wanted Hernandez “crippled for life,” according to messages presented during opening statements.

The men attacked Hernandez at the end of his shift at the dispensary, Sept. 22, 2020, with video still frames showing Astaphan taking Hernandez down to the floor and putting him into a choke hold while Peng stood above. At some point, Peng injected a lethal dose of ketamine into Hernandez.

The men then loaded Hernandez’s body into the back seat of Astaphan’s SUV and, driven by Peng’s then girlfriend Sonita Heng, took his body out to the desert, burying him in a remote area between Barstow and Baker, prosecutors said.

Astaphan, Peng and Heng returned to the shop around 6 a.m. the following morning, prosecutors said. Surveillance cameras inside the shop showed them cleaning the area where Astaphan had taken Hernandez to the ground.

Cell phone tower pings provided police with the route of travel for Astaphan, Peng and Heng, prosecutors said.

Police arrested Astaphan and Heng in November 2020, after an expert at the Glendale Police Department recovered surveillance stills from deleted video footage on a DVR taken from the dispensary. Peng was extradited back to Los Angeles to face a murder charge in 2022.

Heng took a plea deal with prosecutors in exchange for her testimony during trial. If she was determined to have testified truthfully, she would be sentenced to 112 days in county jail for being an accessory after the fact.

In addition to his studies, Juan Hernandez also ran marathons, played soccer and volleyball and was involved with robotics in high school, Yajaira Hernandez said.

He got a job at the dispensary to pay for his classes after he was laid off from a previous job due to the COVID pandemic, she testified during trial.

“He was very caring and compassionate,” Yajaira Hernandez said. “He was a normal kid, but he was very loved.”

Source: Orange County Register

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