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Photo: Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG

Dominican convicted of murdering employee

February 27, 2024

LOS Angeles, CMC – A Los Angeles Superior Court jury needed less than three hours to convict Dominican-born, Ethan Astaphan of first-degree murder in the death of his 21-year old employee.

Astaphan, 30 who ran an illegal marijuana dispensary and 34-year-old Weijia “James” Peng, 34, was convicted Monday of killing Carlos Hernandez.

Hernandez was killed on September 22, 2020, and was buried in the Mojave Desert.

The court heard that Peng used a syringe containing ketamine while committing the crime.

Hernandez’s mother, Yajaira, had filed a missing person’s report with Los Angeles police after her son had failed to return home on September 22, 2020.

Relatively distributed flyers across the city for nearly two months until the body was found by a volunteer and a cadaver dog on November 15, 2020.

Peng and Astaphan are scheduled to be sentenced on April 25.

The prosecution had argued that Astaphan and Peng killed Hernandez because they believed he was stealing money and marijuana from the dispensary.

They presented several WhatsApp messages exchanged between Astaphan and Peng in the two days leading up to the murder in which they first discussed firing every employee, then focused on Hernandez after Astaphan claimed he saw the victim making deals for customers during a shift.

Whether Hernandez actually stole anything was not known.

The court was told that the defendants discussed making an example of Hernandez, with Peng at one point saying he wanted Hernandez “crippled for life”.

The men attacked Hernandez at the end of his shift at the dispensary with video still frames showing Astaphan taking Hernandez down to the floor and putting him into a choke hold while Peng stood above.

At some point, Peng injected a lethal dose of ketamine into Hernandez.

The men then loaded Hernandez’s body into the back seat of Astaphan’s vehicle and, driven by Peng’s then-girlfriend Sonita Heng, took his body out to the desert, burying him in a remote area.

Prosecutors said Astaphan, Peng and Heng returned to the shop early the next morning and surveillance cameras inside the shop showed them cleaning the area where Astaphan had taken Hernandez to the ground.

The court was told that cell phone tower pings provided police with the route of travel for Astaphan, Peng and Heng.

Police arrested Astaphan and Heng in November 2020, after an expert at the Glendale Police Department recovered surveillance stills from deleted video footage on a DVR taken from the dispensary.

Peng was extradited back to Los Angeles to face a murder charge in 2022.

Heng took a plea deal with prosecutors in exchange for her testimony during the trial.

Astaphan’s attorney, Larson Hahm said during closing arguments that his client should have been convicted of second-degree murder because circumstantial evidence showed the murder wasn’t pre-planned, while Peng’s attorney, Ronald Hedding, declined to disclose his argument to jurors.

Media reports said that Astaphan’s mother, father, and sister travelled from Dominica and Florida to attend each day of the trial, while his wife also attended most days.

A community Alert Notification on a pole looking for Juan Carlos Hernandez who was last seen on September 22 in Los Angeles on Friday, October 16, 2020.  (Photo: Keith Birmingham, Pasadena Star-News/ SCNG)

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