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Van Nuys Faith Healer Is Sentenced to 9 Years in Prison

Reina Chavarria injected drugs into an Orange County handyman who died a short time later.

February 10, 2004|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

A Van Nuys faith healer was sentenced to nine years in state prison Monday for operating an illegal medical practice and injecting drugs into a man who later died, prosecutors said.

Reina Chavarria attracted numerous working-class "patients" to her house with promotions in the Spanish-language media. She was arrested in October 2002 after administering the drugs to Roberto Caceres, an Orange County handyman who had visited her for treatment of a persistent skin condition.

Caceres, 54, went into convulsions and died shortly after being injected with vitamins and an anti-inflammatory drug, said Los Angeles County Deputy Dist. Atty. Dmitry Gorin. Police later found candles, voodoo dolls and religious figurines in the room where Chavarria treated her clients.

As part of a November agreement to avoid a charge of involuntary manslaughter, Chavarria pleaded guilty to four counts of unlawful medical practice and three counts of tax evasion.

Gorin said Chavarria could have been sentenced to three to six years in prison if she had agreed to pay $250,000 in restitution, but she refused to do so. Her assets have been estimated at close to $1.5 million, Gorin said.

"She didn't show an ounce of remorse," Gorin said. "Not a single 'I'm sorry.' That's what makes this case even worse."

The victim's son, Luis Caceres, said he was relieved by the sentence. Last April, police found Chavarria selling the antibiotic tetracycline after she was released on bail, and Caceres said he had been worried that she would begin giving treatments again.

"This lady doesn't have any respect for people's life and family," Caceres said. "We don't want any other family to be in the same situation we're going through."

Chavarria's services were touted on the radio by the popular Spanish-language broadcaster Renan Almendarez Coello, who goes by the on-air name El Cucuy, or the boogeyman.

Chavarria's assistant, Margarita Montes, who pleaded no contest to one count of unlawful medical practice, was sentenced Monday to nine months in Los Angeles County Jail and three years' probation. Jose Chavarria, Reina's husband, pleaded no contest to signing a false tax return and was sentenced to two years' probation.

The Caceres family has filed a civil negligence lawsuit against Coello and the Hispanic Broadcasting Corp., parent company of Los Angeles radio station KSCA-FM (101.9). The suit also names Chavarria and Montes.

Coello and the broadcast company face a similar suit over the on-air promotion of Fernando Lozano, known as Dr. Misterio, who was convicted of practicing medicine without a license and sexually assaulting his female clients.

A spokeswoman for Univision Radio, the owner of Hispanic Broadcasting Corp., has said the company will not comment on pending litigation.

In November 2002, Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton called for an investigation into why detectives failed to check out complaints about Chavarria they had received starting in May 2001. Police officials declined to comment on the status of that investigation last November, and did not return calls about it Monday.

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