Body of missing El Camino College student found in shallow grave near Barstow

Yajaira Hernandez received news from police Thursday, Nov. 19, that the body of her son, 21-year-old Juan Carlos Hernandez, had been found on Sunday, she said.

Detectives also arrested two people in connection with Hernandez’ death, police said. Ethan Astaphan, 27, and Sonita Heng, 20, were booked into jail on suspicion of murder and were being held on $10 million bail each, according to inmate records.

“I knew there was a possibility I wouldn’t find my son alive,” Hernandez said Friday, pushing through tears. “It was horrible to hear that he was thrown in the desert and had been there for two months.

“A lot of things went through my mind,” she said. “How long was he out there? What were his last thoughts?”

Juan Hernandez, who also attended El Camino College near Torrance, was last seen Sept. 22. He disappeared after his shift at a marijuana dispensary on the corner of Western Avenue and 81st Street, police said.

He had borrowed his mother’s car to get to work that night after she had fallen ill. She said she received a text message from him shortly before his shift was scheduled to end.

“He reached out saying he was almost done and if I needed anything he would see me soon,” she said. “That ‘soon’ never came.”

She woke up the next morning and checked his room, but he wasn’t there, she said. Her car was still missing. It would be found by police two days later near 64th and Figueroa streets, in the opposite direction of her son’s route home from work.

She filed a missing persons report with Los Angeles police, she said. Eventually, the case went to the Department’s Robbery-Homicide unit after someone tried to extort money from the family for his return, police said.

In the meantime, she mobilized with her family and created upwards of 50,000 fliers to pass out in Los Angeles County, surrounding cities and the Inland Empire.

“Until Tuesday, we were still passing them out around the neighborhood. We didn’t stop,” she said.

Juan Hernandez had hoped to transfer from El Camino College to USC, where his older brother Joseph had recently graduated in June 2019, Yajaira Hernandez said.

He ran marathons, played soccer and volleyball and was involved with robotics in high school. He loved being active and had a positive outlook on life, Yajaira Hernandez said.

As a family, she and her three sons would give back to the community by handing out meals and clothes for the homeless.

“I raised my kids to know what making a difference in someone’s life meant,” she said. “Throughout our lives, we’ve worked with our local churches, schools and other organizations to give back.”

Hernandez didn’t know how her son came upon the job at the marijuana dispensary but said he was trying to earn money to pay for his classes. He had lost a job with a timeshare company earlier this year due to the pandemic, she said.

While he was still missing on October 15, Hernandez said, she and others gave out over 300 care packages, including toiletries, food and water, for the homeless at Skid Row on what would have been Juan’s 22nd birthday.

The discovery of his body and the arrest of the two suspects provides some comfort, Hernandez said, and she’s hopeful the suspects will be charged and brought to justice.

Police did not disclose how they tied Astaphan and Heng to the murder except that search warrants were served at their homes before their arrests, Nov. 19.

San Bernardino Sheriff’s Department and FBI personnel helped in locating Juan’s body, police said.

Yajaira Hernandez said the support from the community was overwhelming.

“I’ll never forget the love and support that everyone showed my family and me through this darkness,” she said. “I will never be able to pay any of those individuals back for what they’ve done for my family.”



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