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Patient Dies After Visit to Faith Healer

The Santa Ana man sought help for a rash but was injected with an unidentified substance.

October 30, 2002|Andrew Blankstein and Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writers

A Santa Ana man who sought out a Van Nuys faith healer to treat a persistent rash went into convulsions and died after the healer's assistant injected him with an unidentified substance, police said.

Roberto Caceres, 54, was rushed to Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys, where he was pronounced dead shortly after 6 p.m. Monday, police said.

Reina Isabel Chavarria, 48, and her assistant, 28-year-old Margarita Montes, were arrested on suspicion of involuntary manslaughter. Investigators said they could face more serious charges, pending the outcome of the police investigation.

Caceres and his wife traveled from Santa Ana to Chavarria's home in the 15700 block of Marlin Place after learning of her practice through Spanish-language newspapers and talking with others who had sought out her services, police said.

Los Angeles Police Department investigators said Caceres had gone to four doctors seeking treatment for a rash that had broken out over his body. When the rash persisted, he turned to the faith healer.

"This should be a warning for people to have more confidence in traditional medicine instead of being treated by somebody rubbing an egg on their back or giving them herbs or ointments," said Van Nuys homicide Det. Al Aldaz. "The person receiving these treatments had no idea of where they got this medicine or even if it's clean."

Chavarria, who is being held at the Van Nuys Jail along with Montes in lieu of $25,000 bail, owns the modest white house with bright red trim near the San Diego Freeway, where police say she has run the faith healing business for at least a year. The yard, containing rosebushes and daisies, has statues of the Virgin Mary, Jesus and angels.

Chavarria set up a waiting room inside, complete with a soda vending machine, police said. In what Chavarria called a "treatment room," investigators found candles, religious figurines and what appeared to be a shrine made up of voodoo dolls, with likenesses of saints and the Virgin Mary.

A dog slept on the treatment table that was used to give injections, Aldaz said.

Neighbors said they observed a constant flow of mostly working-class Latino families at the home.

Bill Gastelum, 57, said he saw people lined up in front of the house as early as 4:30 a.m.

Occasionally neighbors called police, Gastelum said, when they noticed people leaving their children in their cars while the adults went into the home, holding what appeared to be Bibles.

Caceres arrived at the home about 5 p.m. Monday, but was told that the healer was busy with other patients, authorities said. About an hour later, the assistant administered a shot and Caceres went into convulsions, Aldaz said.

Detectives, who seized the syringe, said the Los Angeles County coroner's office will conduct an autopsy and toxicology tests.

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