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Santeria priest who fathered a child with woman found buried in yard is charged in her death

Santeria priest who fathered a child with woman found buried in yard is charged in her death
L.A. County sheriff's homicide investigators hold a news conference Tuesday in downtown L.A. to announce that they'd identified human remains found buried in the backyard of a Valinda home. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times)

Maria Delrefugio Chavez turned to Pablo Pinto Mata, a Santeria spiritual leader, for healing.

The El Monte woman met Mata — a self-proclaimed priest whose followers sometimes called him "El Padrino," or the Godfather — at a botánica he owned in Montebello, where he performed healing rituals.

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He became her spiritualist. Eventually their relationship became intimate. Though Mata was already married with children, he fathered a daughter with Chavez, authorities said.

Then, in 2009, Chavez disappeared. Authorities investigated, but the trail eventually went cold — until this month. Human remains were found buried in the backyard of a San Gabriel Valley home. Los Angeles County authorities said Tuesday the remains are those of Chavez and that Mata is now charged in her slaying.

The 46-year-old, who is of Salvadoran descent, disappeared two years ago after allegedly assaulting a teenage girl, authorities said. Detectives said they can't be sure he's still in the country.

"He could be anywhere," Los Angeles County sheriff's homicide Lt. Vic Lewandowski said. "We've been looking for him for a while."

The Santeria faith originated in West Africa 4,000 years ago and came to the Caribbean via slave ships. The religion has long been a part of life in some Latino neighborhoods and sometimes makes headlines for its unusual rituals, which include animal sacrifice.

Mata was well known in the neighborhood where he worked.

Mayela Lopez, an employee of a medical office down the street from Mata's former business, said the botánica seemed like a warehouse, with racks of charms, candles and dolls.

"It gave me the major creeps," Lopez said. "You just felt the aura."

Karen Chavez, a manager at the medical office, said she met Mata when his botánica was next door to her workplace, before he moved to a bigger space down the street.

About 10 years ago, she said, a man stood outside in the street with a gun, looking to shoot Mata. In another incident, police found a dead goat in the medical office's trash can.

"We knew it most likely came from them," Chavez said of the botánica. "They would come with live chickens. Nothing really surprised us from next door."

Even before he was charged in Chavez's death, Mata was under police scrutiny.

Montebello police announced this month that Mata was suspected of sexually assaulting a 16-year-old girl at his botánica, Los Angeles Import, in the 2400 block of Whittier Boulevard.

In late 2013, Mata conducted three so-called healing rituals for the teenager at his business. During her last visit, he forced her to undress and sexually assaulted her, authorities said. He allegedly told her the assault was part of the ritual.

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Mata has eluded Montebello police since then, the department said. He also is wanted by the West Covina Police Department in connection with sex-related crimes.

Sheriff's Det. Steven Blagg said authorities were hoping some of Mata's followers would see that "he's a false prophet" and come forward. Blagg said that Mata also used the moniker Juan Diego, after the indigenous Catholic saint who, according to legend, beheld the Virgin of Guadalupe in 1531.

Lewandowski said an arrest warrant for Mata was issued last week. The cause of Chavez's death has not yet been determined because of the condition of her body, Lewandowski said.

Detectives found Chavez's body Aug. 7, buried 5 feet deep behind a house in the 700 block of Elsberry Avenue in unincorporated Valinda.

Detectives declined to provide details about how her body was located, saying it was part of the investigation. The residents of the home are cooperating with authorities and are not considered suspects in Chavez's death or burial, Lewandowski said.

Chavez's sister, Maria Elena Chavez, said the family knew Mata and that he "seemed like a good person." She said they did not know he had had a sexual relationship with the victim or was the father of her daughter.

She "left a daughter who misses her all the time, just like my family does," Maria Elena Chavez said. "My mother died a month ago with the pain of not finding her daughter."

The child, who was 4 years old when Chavez was reported missing on May 7, 2009, is now living with other relatives. She has not had contact with Mata since her mother's disappearance, detectives said.

Mata is believed to have been a business partner of Chavez's, who owned a video store in South L.A. and a retail store in East L.A., Blagg said.

Mata's Montebello botánica is now under new ownership, authorities said.

A manager of the business now operating in that location was angry when a reporter inquired about Mata, saying "all this negative media is impacting all the new stores that have opened up since this guy has been gone."

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