Two Suspects Charged in Murder Case of College Student Found in Mojave Desert

Two Suspects Charged in Murder Case of College Student Found in Mojave Desert


Juan Carlos Hernández, a 21-year-old college student from California, was found dead in a ditch off Interstate 15 last week. Hernández’s body was found in a shallow grave that appeared to have been hastily dug. Police have brought two people into custody in connection to the case: Ethan Kedar Astaphan, 27, and Sonita Heng, 20.

Astaphan is facing down one charge of murder, while Heng is facing one count of accessory after the fact. The two were arrested on November 19 under the suspicion of murder after Hernández’s remains were found. Hernández was reported missing on September 22 by family. He was a student at El Camino College and worked in a dispensary in Los Angeles.

Investigation Ensues

After being reported missing on September 22, investigators began the search for Hernández, centering their search on the dispensary he worked at. He was last seen leaving work on the evening of the 22nd, so investigators searched the area surrounding his job in downtown LA. They found his vehicle roughly two miles from his place of employment on September 24, but, after that, the trail went cold for months.

Hernández’s family spent months trying to raise awareness, raising money to help find any information on the young student. The family was able to raise over $25,000 on GoFundMe, though they were unable to meet their $30,000 goal. They posted fliers, pressured local police, and organized searches themselves. Finally, in late November, investigators discovered the student’s body in the desert.

Discovery and Charges

“This isn’t the outcome we ever wanted or thought we’d get,” Yajaira Hernández, Hernández’s mother, was quoted as saying to reporters. “But I still feel blessed that we found his body.”

Both Astaphan and Heng are being held on a massive bond of $10 million, making it unlikely that they will be able to secure release from prison before their court date on December 1. Of the two, Astaphan faces the more severe charges: if he is found guilty as currently charged, he could spend up to a maximum sentence of 25-to-life for first-degree murder. Heng, meanwhile, faces much lighter charges, with her maximum sentencing being three years in prison.

At the time of this writing, it’s unclear whether either of the defendants have entered a plea or secured a lawyer. Should they be unable to a afford a lawyer they’ll be appointed public defenders. Meanwhile, Hernández’s family has indicated that all they want is justice now that they have closure.