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Santeria Priest Suspected In Murder Case Involving Backyard Burial

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Investigators have identified the human remains found in the backyard of a family's San Gabriel Valley home as a woman who went missing in 2009. They also announced a suspect this morning—a Santeria priest who also disappeared after he was accused of raping a teenage girl.Pablo Pinto Maria, 46, has been on the lam since 2014, when police were investigating allegations that he raped a 16-year-old girl while performing a healing ritual on her. Now, police are looking for Mata in connection with the murder of Maria DelRefugio Chavez, whose remains were discovered in the backyard of a Valinda home earlier this month, City News Service reports.

DelRefugio Chavez went missing in 2009 after leaving her job at the East L.A. Indoor Swapmeet in the 4700 block of Whittier Blvd. on May 7, 2009 just before 9 p.m., according to the Charley Project, a site that profiles missing persons cold cases. Earlier that night, she sent a text message to a friend telling them that she was in trouble and may be in danger. That's the last anyone heard from DelRefugio Chavez. Her friend reported her missing and her 1998 Honda Accord was later found abandoned in the 17000 block of PCH near Sunset Boulevard.

Del Refugio Chavez was a single mother to a young girl, and the child's father was not considered a suspect. She was 39 at the time of her disappearance.

Mata was a Santeria priest who performed rituals at his business Los Angeles Import, a botanica in the 2400 block of W. Whittier in Montebello. Investigators say that in 2013, Mata had three sessions with a 16-year-old. Each time, he asked her to take off her clothes. The third time, he allegedly sexually assaulted her, telling her that it was part of the ritual. The victim did not tell her mother what happened until 2014 because she said she was afraid of Mata,who she said told her that spirits would be able to find her.

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Police interviewed Mata in 2014 and charged him with rape and lewd acts with a minor in 2015, but then he disappeared and authorities have been unable to track him down.

A family of four currently lives in the home in the 700 block of Elsberry Ave. in Valinda where the remains, which included a human skull, were found. The family is not suspected to be involved in any way.

Mata may be using a false name, possibly Juan Diego or El Padrino, KTLA reports. He is described as a 46-year-old Hispanic man, about 5'5" and 175 pounds. He has brown hair and brown eyes. Anyone with information should call homicide detectives at (323) 890-5500.

Update, 12:30 p.m.: Police have revealed that Mata is the father of Del Refugio Chavez's daughter. According to a release from the L.A. County Sheriff's Department, the two met when Del Refugio Chavez was a customer of Mata's botanica, and that at one point, the two became business partners. Mata was married with children when he met Mata, but the two had an affair with Del Refugio Chavez that resulted in the birth of a baby girl. The child was four years old when Del Refugio Chavez disappeared. At the time of Del Refugio Chavez's disappearance, Mata was only considered a 'person of interest.'