Missing community college student found in shallow grave near Barstow

A missing poster showing Juan Carlos Hernández
Juan Carlos Hernández’s body was exhumed from a shallow grave dug off Interstate 15, about 40 miles northeast of Barstow.
(Soudi Jiménez / Los Angeles Times en Español)

When Juan Carlos Hernández didn’t come home after clocking out of work in September, his mother mounted a furious public campaign to generate leads and push the police to find the 21-year-old community college student.

The search came to an end earlier this week, the Los Angeles Police Department disclosed Thursday. Hernández’s body was found in a shallow grave dug off Interstate 15, about 40 miles northeast of Barstow, the department said.

Detectives arrested two people Thursday in connection with Hernández’s death, Ethan Astaphan, 27, and Sonita Heng, 20, according to the LAPD. Both were booked on suspicion of murder. It couldn’t be determined Thursday evening if they had lawyers who could speak on their behalf.

Hernández’s family had reported him missing the night of Sept. 22. A student at El Camino College in Torrance, Hernández, known to family and friends as “Cookie,” was a semester shy of transferring to USC, where he planned to study engineering, his mother previously told The Times.


Hernández was last seen at a marijuana dispensary on the corner of Western Avenue and 81st Street, where on Sept. 22 he worked a shift from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. A few minutes before 10 p.m., he sent his mother a text message saying he’d be home soon. He’d driven her car, a 2020 Honda Civic, to work. Police found the car two days later in the 6400 block of South Figueroa Street, about two miles from the dispensary.

Within a week of Hernández being reported missing, someone tried to extort money from his family in exchange for his return, the LAPD said. His mother, Yajaira Hernández, said in an interview Thursday that after making the mistake of putting her phone number on an early batch of fliers, she fielded several calls and voicemails demanding ransom.

The case was turned over to detectives from the department’s Robbery-Homicide Division, who determined the would-be extortionists were not actually involved in Hernández’s disappearance. Still, they believed Hernández “was most likely the victim of a crime,” the LAPD said.

Meanwhile, Hernández’s family picketed City Hall and LAPD headquarters, voicing frustration at the authorities’ inability to find him. They celebrated his 22nd birthday on Oct. 15 by passing out food on Skid Row, along with kits full of medical and hygiene supplies that also came with missing posters, according to a report in The Union, El Camino College’s student newspaper.

On Nov. 15, LAPD detectives, San Bernardino sheriff’s deputies and FBI agents exhumed Hernández’s remains from a shallow grave off Afton Canyon Road, near Interstate 15, the LAPD said Thursday.

Astaphan and Heng, the two people detained in connection with his death, were arrested four days later. The LAPD did not disclose Thursday how they had linked the two to Hernández’s disappearance and death. Hernández’s mother said she did not recognize the suspects’ names.

In the last eight weeks, Yajaira Hernández passed out and put up more than 50,000 fliers across Los Angeles, Orange and San Bernardino counties, she said. She visited every homeless encampment and shelter she could find.

“L.A. is such a big city, it was like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” she said.

She found some comfort among Facebook groups of parents whose children had vanished. Many had been waiting “for months, even years,” she said. “My greatest fear was I’d be one of those people, walking around with a hole in my heart for the rest of my life.”

On Thursday, she said, two Robbery-Homicide detectives knocked on her door and told her the search was over.


“This isn’t the outcome we ever wanted or thought we’d get,” she said, “but I still feel blessed that we found his body.”

Los Angeles Times en Español staff writer Soudi Jiménez contributed to this report.