The members of a breakaway religious sect were found praying at a Los Angeles County park Sunday, halting a frantic search for the five adults and eight children who went missing after writing letters to family members saying goodbye.
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore says the 13 adults and children were spotted late Sunday morning at Jackie Robinson Park in Palmdale and that all members are apparently safe.
The group from Palmdale was talking with social workers and sheriff's deputies at the park, in an unpopulated section of the Antelope Valley east of Palmdale. KNX radio reported that the supposed leader of the cult, Reyna Marisol Chicas, was being detained in a squad car as deputies investigated her claims that the whole incident was a simple mix-up.
"I guess it was a misunderstanding, and I'm sorry about that," Martha Clavel, 39, told KNX radio about 24 hours she and the other three adults and nine children were reported missing by worried husbands.
The men showed deputies letters saying the group was awaiting an apocalyptic event and would soon see Jesus and their dead relatives in heaven. They accused Chicas of "brainwashing" members of the group.
"These letters read like a will and testament. They read like goodbye letters," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore. "Coupled with the two husbands that come in and tell us 'Our wives are missing, we believe they are under the spell of this lady,'" deputies had no choice but to treat the matter seriously, Whitmore said.
The disturbing story began developing early this weekend when the very religious "cult like" group apparently left everything behind in preparation for the after life. The group of 13 people included children as young as three.
The group was seen early Saturday morning, according to reports from the Associated Press. A Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputy spoke with members of the sect while they were praying in their vehicles in the parking lot of a Palmdale high school.
Capt. Mike Parker said that when the deputy made contact at 3 a.m. Saturday, the adults in the group said they were praying against violence in schools and against premarital sex.
Parker said all five adults and eight children were present in three vehicles outside Pete Knight High School. The deputy said everyone appeared safe and he went on his way.
By Saturday afternoon, rumors began floating around that the group was planning a mass suicide causing detectives, mounted patrols and helicopters to comb a broad swatch of mountains, high desert and canyons early Sunday morning in search of the missing group.
Many members of the group left behind goodbye notes, along with cell phones, identification and deeds of property.
"Essentially, the letters say they are all going to heaven to meet Jesus and their deceased relatives," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore. "Some of the letters were saying goodbye."
According to an emergency bulletin put out by the governor's office, in addition to 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
- Stephanie Serrano, 12
Police were tipped to the case because a husband of one of the members was handed a purse filled with the items and told to pray over them.
He looked inside and then called police.
That man told investigators he believes group members had been "brainwashed" by Chicas, and one expressed worries that they might harm themselves, said Parker.
Friends of Chicas said she was devout but hardly fanatic in her religious beliefs.
Former neighbor Ricardo Giron told The Los Angeles Times that Chicas became increasingly religious after she separated from her husband four years ago.
But Giron's wife, Jisela, said the church she attended was a typical Christian congregation and Chicas did not have a leadership role.
The couple said 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," Giron told the newspaper. "You felt like you could trust her."
A man at 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."
Whitmore said the major crimes unit, helicopter patrols and many other deputies were looking for missing people. They were searching for three vehicles: a silver Toyota Tundra pickup, a 1995 Mercury Villager and a 2004 white Nissan, which were the vehicles spotted Sunday morning at Los Angeles County park.
The group had broken off from a mainstream Christian church in Palmdale, a high-desert city of 139,000.
"We've got a group here that's practicing some orthodox and some unorthodox Christianity," said Parker. "Obviously this falls under the unorthodox."