Suspect in Killing of Woman Found Buried in Valinda Yard Is Fugitive Santeria Priest Accused of Rape

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The human remains found buried in the backyard of a Valinda home were identified Tuesday as those of an El Monte woman who has been missing for more than six years, and a Santeria priest also accused of raping a teenage girl was named as the suspect in her killing.

Pablo Pinto Mata was identified Aug. 25, 2015, as the suspect in the killing of Maria Delrefugio Chavez, who disappeared in 2009. (Credit: LASD)
Pablo Pinto Mata was identified Aug. 25, 2015, as the suspect in the killing of Maria Delrefugio Chavez, who disappeared in 2009. (Credit: LASD)

The recovery of Maria Delrefugio Chavez’s remains began Aug. 6, after investigators received a tip about the location of her body.

Chavez was found buried next to a home in the 700 block of Elsberry Avenue, in a residential neighborhood in the unincorporated area of Valinda, next to La Puente. Investigators found a human skull and deemed the case a murder investigation.

The man wanted in Chavez’s killing was identified as Pablo Pinto Mata, 46. He may also go by Juan Diego or El Padrino, according to a wanted flier distributed by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which was investigating.

In a news release, the department said that Chavez got to know Mata by patronizing a botanica he owned in the 2400 block of Whittier Boulevard in Montebello.

The same day Chavez's remains were discovered, on Aug. 6, Montebello police identified Mata as a suspect in the rape of a 16-year-old girl who came into his shop in late 2013. He allegedly forced the girl to disrobe and then raped her, telling her the assault was part of a healing ritual that he was practicing in his role as a Santeria priest.

Maria Delrefugio Chavez is shown in a photo displayed at a May 2009 news conference on her disappearance. (Credit: KTLA)
Maria Delrefugio Chavez is shown in a photo displayed at a May 2009 news conference on her disappearance. (Credit: KTLA)

Montebello police have been looking for Mata since the 2013 rape. They said they believed he might have sexually assaulted other victims.

Mata conducted "healing rituals" at the botanica, Los Angeles Imports, police said.

Though Mata was married with a family, he and Chavez had a romantic relationship and then a daughter together, the sheriff's news release stated. The girl was 4 years old when her mother vanished, according to the release.

Mata was a "Santeria spiritualist" to Chavez, and the pair were business partners, the Sheriff's Department stated.

Sheriff's and coroner's investigators are seen digging in the backyard of a home near La Puente on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015. (Credit: KTLA)
Sheriff's and coroner's investigators are seen digging in the backyard of a home near La Puente on Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015. (Credit: KTLA)

Chavez ran a store at an East L.A. indoor swap meet, according to a story reported by KTLA at the time of her disappearance, in May 2009. She was last seen after closing up shop.

Her Honda Civic was found on Pacific Coast Highway in Pacific Palisades.

Mata was a "person of interest" since Chavez disappeared, the Sheriff's Department said. Investigators interviewed him after shortly she disappeared.

He was described as Hispanic of Salvadoran descent, 5 foot 5 inches tall, 175 pounds, and with brown hair and brown eyes. He was last seen with a goatee, and his last known address was the botanica in Montebello, which he no longer owns.

Mata was also wanted for sex-related crimes by the West Covina Police Department, the sheriff's news release said.

At a downtown news conference Tuesday alongside sheriff's officials, Chavez's sister, Maria Elena Chavez, pleaded for help finding Mata. A detective translated from Spanish for her.

"She describes her sister as a very loving, caring person -- a great mother," the detective said.

The sisters' mother had died about a month earlier, still coping with the pain that her daughter had never been found, the detective said.

The residents of the Valinda home where Chavez was discovered buried have cooperated with investigators and are not suspected in her burial or killing, according to the Sheriff's Department. The family knew Mata, investigators said.

A sheriff's spokeswoman said Chavez was 39 when she disappeared, as did the department at the time of the victim's 2009 disappearance. The news release issued Tuesday said Chavez was 40, and sheriff's officials speaking at the news conference described her as 40.

Anyone with information on Mata's whereabouts was asked to call sheriff's Homicide Bureau at 323-890-5500. Anonymous tipsters may call 800-222-8477, or text the letters TIPLA plus their tip to 274637 (CRIMES), or go to lacrimestoppers.org.

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