Photo credit: Wiki Commons
Photo credit: Wiki Commons

Homicide detectives said Tuesday that a man known as a Santeria spiritualist is wanted in the death of a one-time business partner and romantic interest, whose remains were found in the backyard of a home in unincorporated Valinda six years after she vanished.

Pablo Pinto Mata, who is also known by the aliases Juan Diego and El Padrino, is named in an arrest warrant issued last week in connection with the killing of Maria Delrefugio Chavez.

Their daughter was 4 when her mother disappeared in May 2009. Chavez’s remains were discovered Aug. 7 buried in the backyard of the home in the 700 block of Elsberry Avenue, where detectives had gone as part of their investigation into the missing person case, according to Los Angeles County sheriff’s homicide Lt. Victor Lewandowski.

Authorities said the two were one-time business partners who met at a store he owned in the 2400 block of Whittier Boulevard in Montebello, where religious candles and other items related to Santeria — an Afro-Caribbean religion — were sold.

The cause of the woman’s death has been deferred by the coroner’s office.

“They have classified it as a homicide due to the circumstances of the recovery (of the remains). But because of the condition (of the remains), it’s going to take some time before they can actually ascribe a cause of death,” Lewandowski said at a news conference in which investigators asked for the public’s help in finding Mata.

“Since the day that victim Chavez went missing, suspect Mata has been a person of interest. 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,” Lewandowski said.

The sheriff’s lieutenant said investigators could not get into details as to why the backyard was searched, saying that information would be disclosed during court hearings if Mata, 46, is located and arrested.

“Everything was intact. I think it was approximately five feet (down),” sheriff’s detective Steve Blagg said of the victim’s remains.

The residents of the Valinda home are not considered suspects or accessories in Chavez’s killing or burial and have fully cooperated with investigators, authorities 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.”

Sheriff’s investigators described Chavez as 40 years old, but the Charley Project website that profiles cold-case missing person cases described her as 39 at the time of her disappearance.

She was last seen around 8:45 p.m. on May 7, 2009, while leaving her job at the East LA Indoor Swapmeet in the 4700 block of Whittier Boulevard, according to the Charley Project. She sent a text message to a friend later that night saying she was in trouble and might be in danger. A friend reported her missing that night.

Her car, a 1998 Honda Accord, was found several days later in the 17000 block of Pacific Coast Highway near Sunset Boulevard.

Mata was described by sheriff’s investigators as being of Salvadoran descent, 5-foot-5 and 175 pounds, with brown hair and eyes. He was last seen sporting a goatee, and his last known address was the botanica he owned at the time.

Anyone with information on his whereabouts was asked to call homicide detectives at (323) 890-5500.

—City News Service

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