PALMDALE, Calif. – Authorities were questioning the leader of a breakaway religious sect Sunday, trying to figure out why its 13 members went missing after leaving behind evidence they were awaiting the rapture or some catastrophic event.
Ending a frantic search, deputies found the group just before noon at Jackie Robinson Park near Palmdale after getting a tip from a local resident, said Los Angeles County sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore. He said all members are safe.
Officers had been searching a wide swath of Southern California since Saturday after family members found letters saying the group was awaiting an apocalyptic event and would soon see Jesus and their dead relatives in heaven.
The group of El Salvadoran immigrants described as “cult-like” by sheriff’s officials, was led by Reyna Marisol Chicas, a 32-year-old woman from Palmdale in northeast Los Angeles County, sheriff’s Captain Mike Parker said.
Members left behind cell phones, identifications, deeds to property and letters indicating they were awaiting the Rapture.
The items came from a purse that a member of the group had left with her husband Saturday and asked him to pray over. He eventually looked inside, and he and another member’s husband called authorities, authorities said.
“These letters read like a will and testament. They read like goodbye letters,” Whitmore said. “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, he said.
Whitmore said he didn’t know if the members had done anything like this before.
Sheriff’s officials said there was no criminal investigation planned.
The men told investigators they believe group members had been “brainwashed” by Chicas, and one expressed worries that they might harm themselves, Parker said. One of the children is 3, and the others range from 12 to 17.
When deputies arrived at the park, they found the children playing on swings and the adults on a blanket praying out loud in Spanish.
The adults expressed shock at the notion that they might harm themselves, Parker said.
A sheriff’s deputy had spoken to members of the group at 3 a.m. Saturday while they were praying in their parked vehicles outside of a Palmdale high school, Parker said.
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, Parker said. The deputy reported everyone appeared safe, and he went on his way.
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,” Vides told The Associated Press on Sunday.
The church has about 400 members, mostly immigrants from Latin America, Vides said.
Chicas apparently had formed her own religious group, 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., said neighbor Cheri Kofahl.
“We’ve got a group here that’s practicing some orthodox and some unorthodox Christianity,” Parker said. “Obviously, this falls under the unorthodox.”
Others who knew Chicas said she was devout but hardly fanatic in her religious beliefs.