San Gabriel Valley

Santeria Priest Sought in 2009 Missing Person Investigation That Led to Backyard Human Remains

New information in the 2009 missing person case led authorities to pursue a search warrant to begin excavation in the home's backyard

A Santeria priest is suspected in the 2009 disappearance of a woman whose remains were found earlier this month in the backyard of a Southern California home.

The remains of Maria DelRefugio Chavez, 39, were found Aug. 7 behind a Valinda home in the 700 block of Elsberry Avenue, located in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles. New information in the 2009 disappearance of the El Monte mother led authorities to pursue a search warrant to begin excavation in the home's backyard.

Pablo Pinto Mata, who remains at large, was identified as a suspect in her disappearance, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. Mata, known as a Santero who performed healing rituals in Montebello, also is wanted in connection with a sex assault involving a child, police said.

"I was in shock," said the homeowner, who did not want to be identified. "I didn't know what to think."

Members of the family of four living at the house now and since before 2009 were brought outside at the time the remains were dug up and later questioned by investigators. Family members have been "cooperating," and investigators do not believe the family is involved in the missing person case, according to authorities.

The homeowner says Mata showed up uninvited and said he wanted to perform a healing ritual alone in her backyard that would help heal her sick daughter. She said she trusted him and feels "totally betrayed."

"He was supposed to be helping us, not hurting us," the homeowner said.

"Since the day that victim Chavez went missing, suspect Mata has been a person of interest," said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Lt. Victor Lewandowski. "He is also wanted by the Montebello and West Covina  police departments for multiple sex crime felonies, including rape and sex acts with minor children."

Investigators said the two met at a shop in Montebello that the suspect used to own, and that Mata and Chavez were both business partners and romantically involved.

The couple also had a child together, who was 4 years old when her mother disappeared.

The victim's 1998 Honda Accord was found several days after she was last seen May 7, 2009 as she left her job at the East LA Indoor Swapmeet in the 4700 block of Whittier Boulevard, according to the Charley Project website that profiles cold-case missing-person cases. She was reported missing later that night.

The family living at the home do say that Mata buried Chavez in the backyard of a family that he knew personally, even though they knew nothing of the killing or burial.

"The only comments I can tell you guys is that we're heartbroken," said the homeowner's son, who also did not want to be identified. "Whatever the freaky things he did here."

A woman in the house said that he had helped a young girl who lived in the home overcome panic attacks and insomnia, in his role as a healer.

The subject of the 2009 missing persons case was earlier identified only as an adult, who was not a resident of the house. A cause of death has not been determined, detectives said.

Sheriff's detective Joe Romero said the victim's sister, Maria Elena Chavez, who spoke in Spanish to reporters, was asking for the public's assistance "in finding the individual who did this to her sister."

"Their mother passed away approximately a month ago and she passed away knowing that her daughter was still missing, with the pain that her daughter had not been found or located," Romero said.

He said the family feels that they can now "put their sister to rest in peace."

Gadi Schwartz contributed to this report.

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