Street vendor hailed as hero after helping to apprehend carjacker
As Fredy Hernández and his family know all too well, the life of a street vendor is hard work. Long hours in the summer heat can be grueling.
The work can also be dangerous.
Hernández’s mother Amalia, 57, and sister Fatima, 23, said they were robbed at gunpoint last year while working at the tejuino beverage and ice cream stand that the family has operated for years on a desolate stretch of Rosemead Boulevard near Montebello.
“This is what we do to make money,” said Hernández, 36, a onetime amateur boxer who said he’s had to fight off other attempted robberies, including one by a man wielding a large knife. “It’s not easy, you know, but you have to survive.”
On the afternoon of July 5, Hernandez found himself at the center of another violent drama as he confronted a suspected carjacker after the man tried to steal the vehicle of a customer, whose wife and young child were inside.
The incident began moments earlier when Jose Elias Aguilar stole a minivan in nearby Pico Rivera with four children inside, sheriff’s officials said. The children were waiting in the running vehicle for their parents to pick up food at a nearby restaurant.
As Aguilar sped away, all four children either jumped, were pushed or fell out of the vehicle, authorities said. One of them, 13-year-old Isabella Cortes, was killed when she struck an object in the street after she was ejected.
Aguilar was driving about 60 mph, according to one witness, when he smashed into another vehicle at the intersection of Whittier and Rosemead boulevards, before continuing north on Rosemead.
The minivan eventually broke down in the center divider near Hernández’s two tents.
Aguilar emerged from the vehicle shouting and acting crazy, witnesses said, before attempting to steal the vehicle of Hernandez’s customer.
Pablo Peña had just pulled up to buy some refreshments and left the keys inside his running 2018 Nissan Sentra, with his wife and 2-year-old son, Julian, inside.
As Aguilar jumped into the driver’s seat and attempted to speed away, Peña lunged for the rear passenger door and managed to leap into the back seat.
“I panicked. I didn’t know what to do,” Peña said. “I begged him to take the car and leave my family, but he didn’t listen, so I tried to choke him and get him to stop.”
Aguilar drove about 100 yards before crashing the vehicle. He staggered away, while Peña tended to his wife and child.
Aguilar first tried to flag down a couple of vehicles before jogging back toward the minivan he abandoned.
But Hernández caught up with him and delivered several crushing blows.
“Bro, I threw everything at him, I was just beating him down, but nothing was stopping him,” Hernández said. “He was on something because he didn’t feel anything.”
Hernández eventually wrestled Aguilar to the ground, with Peña joining in. Another vendor rushed over to help, while patrons from other stands hurried to assist.
“We didn’t even know what this guy did in Pico Rivera, but we knew we had to stop him,” Hernández said. “Enough was enough. This time we were going to get justice.”
Sheriff’s deputies arrested Aguilar, who in 2017 was convicted of first-degree burglary and was out on zero bail for a felony possession of a dagger and vandalism earlier this year. He has since been charged with murder, carjacking, corporal injury to a child and kidnapping in connection with the July 5 incident.
“He should have never been on the streets,” Peña said.
Media reports praised Hernández for his role in helping apprehend Aguilar.
“I punched a guy because I was angry, but Pablo was fighting for his wife and kid,” Hernández said. “That’s the real hero. He stopped that guy.”
Peña’s car was declared a total loss. But he knows it could have been a lot worse.
“I thank Fredy and everyone who came together to stop this man and help save my family,” Peña said. “They’re heroes, and without them who knows how many more people he would have killed.”
Hernández shrugged off any praise.
“Man, we’re just selling food,” he said. “We’re not heroes.”
Get breaking news, investigations, analysis and more signature journalism from the Los Angeles Times in your inbox.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.