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‘It Was Like Trying To Find A Needle In A Haystack’: Missing College Student’s Body Found In Shallow Grave

Juan Carlos Hernández sent his mother a text message on Sept 22 alerting her he’d be home soon. The aspiring engineer was never heard from again.

By Dorian Geiger
Missing College Student's Remains Found In Shallow Grave

The body of a California college student who had mysteriously vanished in September after leaving work at a Los Angeles marijuana dispensary was recovered last week, police said.

Juan Carlos Hernández's remains were found by federal agents and county authorities in a “shallow” grave east of Interstate 15 on Nov. 15, according to the Los Angeles Police Department. The San Bernardino County Coroner’s Office later confirmed the remains belonged to the 21-year-old. 

On Thursday, Ethan Astaphan, 27, and Sonita Heng, 20, were arrested in Hernández’s murder after city detectives and a SWAT team conducted search warrants at their residences. A motive hasn’t been released in the suspected killing. 

The young man’s family, devastated by the news, said they were relieved the 21-year-old’s body was recovered and arrests had been made.

Juan Carlos Hernandez Pd

“L.A. is such a big city, it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” his mother, Yajaira Hernández, told the Los Angeles Times after learning the news from detectives. “This isn’t the outcome we ever wanted or thought we’d get but I still feel blessed that we found his body.”

The grieving mother said she didn’t know the suspects. 

Hernández was last seen on the corner of 81st Street and Western Avenue at the marijuana dispensary he worked at on Sept. 22, the Los Angeles Times reported. Shortly before 10 p.m., he reportedly sent his mother a text message letting her know he planned to be home shortly. He wasn’t heard from again. 

Days later, the college student’s abandoned car was found roughly two miles from the dispensary.

Within a week of his disappearance, police said that Hernández’s family was extorted by an individual who promised the college student’s safe return in exchange for cash. Detectives determined that the lead ultimately was not related to Hernández’s disappearance, but that he was still likely the victim of a crime.

Prior to his body’s recovery, the college student’s family begged for his safe return.

“We want him back,” Yajaira Hernández said during an October Los Angeles City Council meeting, according to KNBC. “We want to be able to be with him as we've always been. The community, we're all still searching. I just urge you to put yourself in my shoes."

A GoFundMe started for the family to help cover expenses related to the search for Hernández has brought in more than $25,000.

The 21-year-old, nicknamed “Cookie,” was studying engineering at El Camino College in the coastal city of Torrance, California, the school’s student newspaper reported. He was planning to transfer to the University of Southern California in the near future, his mother told the Los Angeles Times.

“He’s a young man with ambitions and dreams,” she said.

She also told the Los Angeles Times that she’d distributed more than 50,000 pamphlets about her son’s disappearance in different counties in the months after he vanished. On what would have been his 22nd birthday she passed out food and supplies to homeless communities in Los Angeles, according to the outlet. 

“To Juan, I want to say that I will not give up,” she told the Los Angeles Times. “I will be strong, and I will do everything I can to find you. I will move the heavens and the Earth until you come back to us. We love you. We miss you. And we’re all worried about you.”

Astaphan and Heng were booked into a city jail on suspicion of murder. It’s unclear if they’ve retained legal representation. 

Anyone with information related to Hernández’s murder is urged to contact the Los Angeles Police Department at 213-486-6840.