A Tale of Two Killings

The stories of Laci Peterson and Evelyn Hernandez suggest that all lives—and deaths—are not equal.

Evelyn Hernandez and her young son Alex.
Evelyn Hernandez and her young son Alex.

Just seven months before the very pregnant Laci Peterson went missing from her home in Modesto in December 2002, the very pregnant Evelyn Hernandez disappeared from San Francisco. Peterson, a perky, middle-class future soccer mom, became international news, while Hernandez, a legal immigrant and single mother, was all but forgotten. The stark difference in media attention notwithstanding, both women had endured similar fates. Their bodies, separate and alone, washed up along the shores of the San Francisco Bay.

Peterson’s husband, Scott Peterson, currently sits on death row at San Quentin State Prison. Hernandez’s killer has never been found.

Evelyn Hernandez came to the United States from El Salvador when she was 14 years old. She attended San Francisco’s McAteer High School, became pregnant with Alexis at 17, and held jobs at the city’s Clift Royal Sonesta Hotel and Costco. Eventually, she and her then-5-year-old son, Alexis, settled in the Crocker-Amazon neighborhood, where she spent time with her boyfriend, a 36-year-old limousine company employee named Herman Aguilera. Some news reports state that Aguilera was also an airline mechanic; all reports describe him as married.

Hernandez was 24 when she disappeared. According to family and friends, she was excited to have another baby—a son she planned to name Fernando. Aguilera, allegedly, wasn’t wild about the idea. Several reports state that Hernandez didn’t know Aguilera was married until she called his mom to inquire why her boyfriend wasn’t enthused about the pregnancy. Meanwhile, Aguilera’s wife allegedly knew about Hernandez but was unaware that she was pregnant.

According to the San Francisco Police Department, Hernandez last spoke to family members and was seen with Alexis at his school, Buena Vista Elementary in San Francisco’s Mission district, on May 1, 2002. On May 7, Hernandez’s due date, Aguilera reported her and her son missing to the authorities.

Several days after Hernandez’s disappearance, a wallet containing cash and a disability check made out to an Evelyn Hernandez was found in South San Francisco, just a few blocks from the limousine company that employed Aguilera. In July, a decomposed body—just a pair of legs and a torso, clad in maternity clothes—washed up beneath the Bay Bridge along San Francisco’s Embarcadero. DNA tests confirmed the remains to be those of Hernandez. Her son, Alexis, is still missing.

Several reports state that Aguilera’s wife provided his alibi. Presumably, this means that she claimed Aguilera was with her the day Hernandez and her son were thought to have gone missing. Facts surrounding this alibi aren’t clear. In contrast, the most minuscule details surrounding the disappearance of Peterson have been established, right down to her last Trader Joe’s receipt.

When Evelyn and Alexis Hernandez disappeared, the authorities initially thought that Evelyn might have simply split town with her son. Her boyfriend was a married man who didn’t want to help with a baby, and her mother was back in El Salvador. But would Hernandez really have boarded a plane six days before one’s due date? Police didn’t suspect foul play until Hernandez’s wallet was found.

But no one, it’s easy to notice, assumed the same about Laci Peterson, whose husband was also having an affair and who also seemed to have vanished.

Peterson, unlike Hernandez, had the advantage of a local and vocal family advocating on her behalf. A media frenzy immediately surrounded her disappearance, with hotlines and vigils and national news coverage. Meanwhile, Hernandez had barely made the local news.

By its own admission, Hernandez’s hometown paper, the San Francisco Chronicle, published 32 stories about Peterson in the months between her disappearance and the arrest of Scott Peterson, including four front-page reports. The paper published only four stories on Hernandez—not a single one on the front page.

And while the deaths of both women are horrific tragedies, what about Alexis? The five-year-old boy has never been found. Why didn’t the missing child of a dead mother make national news?

A handful of tabloid media outlets suggested that perhaps the two cases were related. Maybe the same person who killed Hernandez murdered Peterson. But these outlets, too, were silent about Alexis. For the record, the authorities insist the two crimes are not related.

By September 2002, Herman Aguilera had stopped cooperating with the San Francisco Police Department, after hiring attorney Robert Tayac. In a statement to the Chronicle at the time, Tayac said that his client was “deeply saddened by the news of the death of his close friend.”

In the fall of 2017, A&E aired a multipart documentary series on the Laci Peterson case. Fifteen years after her solved murder, Peterson is still worthy of hours of prime-time coverage. Hernandez’s case is still considered open and active by the San Francisco Police Department. If he is still alive, Alexis is 22 years old. Hernandez’s unborn baby would have been 17.

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Dispatches