2 charged after body of missing student found buried in Mojave Desert

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LOS ANGELES (KTLA) – Two people have been charged after the body of a slain 21-year-old college student from South Los Angeles was found buried in the desert outside Barstow nearly two months after he went missing, prosecutors said Monday.

Juan Carlos Hernandez, 21, is seen in an undated photo provided by his family after he went missing on Sept. 22, 2020.
Juan Carlos Hernandez, 21, is seen in an undated photo provided by his family after he went missing on Sept. 22, 2020.

Ethan Kedar Astaphan, 27, of San Gabriel faces one count of murder while Sonita Heng, 20, of Harbor City was charged with a count of accessory after the fact, according to a Los Angeles County District Attorney’s news release.

The victim, Juan Hernandez, was last seen on Sept. 22 leaving his home for work at VIP Collective, a cannabis dispensary in South L.A. His family reported him missing when he didn’t come home.

Hernandez attended El Camino College in Torrance and was set to transfer to the University of Southern California and study engineering, according to the Los Angeles Times.

He’s a great kid, smart, kind, great personality, always helpful,” his mother, Yajaira Hernandez, told KTLA a few days after his disappearance. She said her son hadn’t called or texted family or friends, something that was out of character for him.

Less than a week after he vanished, someone contacted the family and tried to extort money from them for his safe return, the Los Angeles Police Department said. Believing Hernandez was likely the victim of a crime, police called the FBI for help in the case, according to LAPD.

On Nov. 15, Hernandez’s body was found buried in a shallow grave along Afton Canyon Road east of Interstate 15, in a remote area of the Mojave Desert between Barstow and Baker. Deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department also assisted.

The San Bernardino County coroner’s office positively identified Hernandez and ruled his death a homicide.

Astaphan and Heng were identified as suspects and arrested after LAPD detectives and SWAT officers served search warrants at their homes last Thursday. Both were booked on suspicion of murder, but the latter has not been charged with that crime.

Booking photos weren’t immediately released.

Authorities have not commented on whether the suspects knew the victim, nor have they revealed a possible motive in the case.

The defendants are each being held on $10 million bail, according to jail records. They are scheduled to be arraigned Monday.

If convicted, Astaphan faces a possible maximum sentence of 25 years to life in prison, while Heng could face up to three years in prison, according to prosecutors.

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