- 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.

“We’ve got a group here that’s practicing some orthodox and some unorthodox Christianity,” Capt. Parker said. “Obviously, this falls under the unorthodox.”

A man at Ms. Chicas‘ Palmdale home who identified himself as her brother-in-law said early Sunday morning that he was sure the group would return.

“We see the news tonight and never think, you know, something like this happen,” said the man, who would not provide his first name but said his last name was Orellana. “But they’re gonna come back for sure.”

Others who knew Ms. Chicas said she was devout but hardly fanatic in her religious beliefs.

Former neighbor Ricardo Giron told the Los Angeles Times that Ms. Chicas became increasingly religious after she separated from her husband four years ago.

But Mr. Giron’s wife, Jisela, said the church Ms. Chicas had attended was a typical Christian congregation and Ms. Chicas did not have a leadership role.

The couple said Ms. Chicas regularly baby-sat for their children and the two families went on outings together.

“Everywhere she was going, she was taking her kids with her,” Mr. Giron told the newspaper. “You felt like you could trust her.”

Mr. Whitmore said the major crimes unit, helicopter patrols and many other deputies were looking for the missing people.

Police were searching for three vehicles: a silver Toyota Tundra pickup, a 1995 Mercury Villager and a 2004 white Nissan.

Capt. Parker said the materials the group left behind suggested they would be in the Antelope Valley area not far from their homes.

About six months ago, the group planned to head to Vasquez Rocks, a wilderness area near Palmdale, to await a catastrophic earthquake or similar event, but one member of the group revealed details of the trip to relatives, Capt. Parker said. The trip was called off and the member kicked out.

According to an emergency bulletin put out by the governor’s office, in addition to Ms. Chicas, the missing include Norma Isela Serrano, 31; Alma Alicia Miranda Pleitez, 28; Martha Clavel, 39; Jose Clavel, 15; Crystal Clavel, 3; Roberto Tejada, 18; Jonathan Tejada, 17; Hugo Tejada, 3; Ezequel Chicas, 15; Genisis Chicas, 12; Bryan Rivera, 17; and Stephanie Serrano, 12.

Associated Press writers contributing to this report include Ana Elena Azpurua in New York and Andrew Dalton and Christopher Weber in Los Angeles.

Copyright © 2016 The Washington Times, LLC.

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