Deputy spoke with sect members early Sunday while they were praying outside school

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sect members prayed outside school early Sunday

PALMDALE, Calif. — A Los Angeles County Sheriff’s deputy spoke with members of a break-off religious sect that has been reported missing while they were praying in their parked vehicles outside of a Palmdale high school.

Capt. Mike Parker says when the deputy made contact at 3 a.m. Sunday, the adults in the group said they were praying against violence in schools and against premarital sex.

Parker says the five adults and eight children were in three vehicles outside Pete Knight High School. The deputy said everyone appeared safe and he went on his way.

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

The group from the Palmdale area disappeared Saturday and left behind evidence that they were awaiting the rapture or some catastrophic event.

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP’s earlier story is below.

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 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.

“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 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, Parker said.

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.

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.

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

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.”

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.”

Others who knew 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 had 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.”

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.

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 had 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, 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 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.

Azpurua reported from New York. Associated Press Writer Andrew Dalton and Chris Weber contributed from Los Angeles

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