Juan Carlos Hernández went to work one afternoon and never came home.
He was one of 3,781 people reported missing last year in Los Angeles. Many were found or reappeared when they were ready. Others, suffering from mental illness or addiction, slipped away from family and joined the growing ranks of homeless people living on city streets.
And some of the cases began with a missing persons report but ended with a murder charge.
Hernández’s mother knew in her gut something wasn’t right when her son didn’t return from his job at a marijuana dispensary. She did the only things she could: She called the police and she started looking. She taped her son’s face on thousands of bus stops and light posts. The search would take her to homeless encampments on skid row, to the steps of City Hall in protest, to remote corners of Southern California and to the dark underbelly of the city’s marijuana industry.
The not knowing propelled her.
As she did every morning before leaving for work, Yajaira Hernández peeked into her son’s bedroom around 5:30 on Sept. 23. His bed was empty and still made up. Also gone, she realized with mounting alarm, was her gray Honda Civic, which her son had driven the previous day to his job at a marijuana dispensary in South Los Angeles.
It wasn’t like her son, a 21-year-old student at El Camino College who hoped to transfer to USC to study engineering, to stay out all night and not tell her. And he knew she needed her car to get to work.
His phone was off. Her gut told her something was wrong.
An officer at the Los Angeles Police Department’s Southwest station took a missing persons report over the phone, but seemed dismissive of her worries: He’s an adult, she remembers him saying. He doesn’t have to tell his mother where he’s going.
Yajaira Hernandez’s 21-year-old son, Juan Carlos Hernandez, went to work one afternoon in September 2020 and never came home. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)
Hernández went that afternoon to VIP Collective LA, the dispensary where for the last six months her son had worked under the table as a “budtender.” She had worried about his safety when he took the job, but his wages helped pay his tuition. And hard as it was, she reminded herself that he was capable of making his own decisions.
VIP Collective LA was one of three pot shops on the same block of Western Avenue between 81st and 82nd streets. All three of the small, shabby storefronts were unlicensed and operating illegally, a detective wrote in an affidavit. VIP Collective LA had no utilities and was powered by a generator.
When Hernández asked about her son, the store’s employees weren’t helpful. She left her phone number and asked that the owner call her.
Her phone rang that evening. The caller identified himself as “E,” the owner of the dispensary. He told Hernández the security cameras at the shop provided only a live feed, so there was no recording that might offer some clues of what happened. He also said he didn’t want the police to get involved.
The suspicion she felt about the phone call soon gave way to dread. Around 2:30 the next morning, some prostitutes working on Figueroa Street flagged down two LAPD officers and pointed out a Honda Civic idling near the corner of 64th Street, according to a search warrant affidavit and what police told Hernández. Her car had been sitting empty, engine running, for hours.
Published: February 12, 2021