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Men accused in slaying of California college student believed he stole from pot shop, prosecutor says

Men accused in slaying of California college student believed he stole from pot shop, prosecutor says
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An El Camino College student who worked at an illegal marijuana dispensary in South Los Angeles was killed and dumped in the Mojave Desert because the dispensary’s owner and manager believed he was stealing money and weed, a prosecutor told a Los Angeles Superior Court jury during opening statements of the trial against the two men.

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Ethan Kedar Astaphan, 30, of San Gabriel and Weijia “James” Peng, 34, of Alhambra each face one count of murder in the death of Juan Carlos Hernandez. The 21-year-old was killed on Sept. 22, 2020, his body dumped in the desert and found nearly two months later north of Barstow, prosecutor Ethan Milius said on Thursday, Feb. 8.

Defense attorneys representing Astaphan and Peng declined Friday to give an opening statement until the defense’s portion of the trial.

Milius told the jury it would see evidence pointing to Astaphan and Peng in the form of WhatsApp messages and surveillance still frames and video from the dispensary, where he said Hernandez was killed. There will also be cellphone records showing the defendants’ locations, and testimony from Sonita Heng, Peng’s girlfriend at the time, who was allegedly ordered by Peng to drive the men to the shop and out to the desert that night, Milius said.

Heng was initially charged with being an accessory after the fact, but she took a deal in exchange for her testimony and faces 112 days in jail if she testifies truthfully, Milius told the jury.

On Sept. 20, 2020, Astaphan and Peng began exchanging messages after Astaphan said he believed employees were stealing both money and marijuana from the shop, according to messages displayed to jurors.

It is unclear if Hernandez ever took anything.

The messages, found after Astaphan’s arrest, show a progression between the two men that started with talk of firing employees to focusing on Hernandez and having him, as one message says, “crippled for life.”

On the day of the killing, Peng sent Astaphan messages asking if he was ready and well rested, then telling him to “bring a full tank of gas.”

The two men met at Peng’s apartment, where Heng was playing video games. Peng told Heng to drive them to the shop, Milius said.

On Sept. 22, 2020, Hernandez was in the shop with three other men when Astaphan arrived at 10:50 p.m. and Peng walked in at 11 p.m., according to surveillance video still frames. The three other men walked out and shortly after, the man identified as Astaphan, is seen taking Hernandez to the ground and putting him in a chokehold while Peng stands over them.

Heng would later tell a prosecutor that Hernandez was also injected with a dose of ketamine. Prosecutors and detectives alerted the San Bernardino County coroner, which had taken the body after it was found in the desert. The coroner would find a lethal amount of ketamine in Hernandez’s brain tissue, Milius told the jury.

The two men dragged Hernandez’s body to Astaphan’s car behind the shop and put him in the back seat, Milius said.



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