- Associated Press - Sunday, September 19, 2010

PALMDALE, Calif. (AP) — Deputies searched a wide swath of Southern California early Sunday for a group of five adults and eight children who went missing, leaving behind letters telling family they were awaiting an apocalyptic event and soon would see Jesus and their dead relatives in heaven.

The group of El Salvadoran immigrants described as “cultlike” by sheriff’s officials, was led by Reyna Marisol Chicas, a 32-year-old woman from Palmdale in northeast Los Angeles County, sheriff’s Capt. Mike Parker said.

Members left behind cell phones, identification, deeds to property and letters indicating they were awaiting the Rapture.

“Essentially, the letters say they are all going to heaven to meet Jesus and their deceased relatives,” sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said. “Some of the letters were saying goodbye.”

The items came from a purse that a member of the group left with her husband Saturday and asked him to pray over. He eventually looked inside, and he and another member’s husband called authorities, Capt. Parker said.

The last known sighting of the group was by a deputy who spoke to members at 3 a.m. Saturday while they were praying in their parked vehicles outside a Palmdale high school, according to Capt. Parker.

When the deputy made contact, adults in the group told him they were praying against violence in schools and against sexual immorality, specifically premarital sex.

The 13 adults and children were in three vehicles outside Pete Knight High School, Capt. Parker said. The deputy reported everyone appeared safe, and he went on his way.

Capt. Parker said this last confirmed sighting of the group may give investigators some clue of their possible future destinations.

The men told investigators they believe group members had been “brainwashed” by Ms. Chicas, and one expressed worries that they might harm themselves, Capt. Parker said. One of the children is 3, and the others range from 12 to 17.

Ms. Chicas used to be a member of Iglesia De Cristo Miel, a Christian congregation in Palmdale, but left about two years ago without much explanation, said Pastor Felipe Vides, who said he had spoken with the sheriff’s office.

“She appeared normal, calm. We didn’t see anything strange,” Mr. Vides told the Associated Press on Sunday.

The church has about 400 members, mostly immigrants from Latin America, Mr. Vides said.

“We were surprised and saddened that people behave in this way because this is not right,” Mr. Vides said. “We are Christians, but the Bible doesn’t teach things like these.”

Ms. Chicas apparently formed her own religious group, Capt. Parker said. About 12 to 15 people would gather at her home in Palmdale, a high-desert city of 139,000, and one night about a week ago, they didn’t leave until 2 a.m., neighbor Cheri Kofahl said.

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