'Cult' group safe after warning of apocalypse
The members of a breakaway religious sect were found praying at a Los Angeles County park last night, halting a frantic search for the five adults and eight children.
An emergency helicopter search was sparked by the discovery of letters to family members saying goodbye.
"Essentially, the letters said they are all going to heaven to meet Jesus and their deceased relatives," police said last night. Deputies found the group yesterday at Jackie Robinson Park in Palmdale after getting a tip they might be there, said Los Angeles County sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore. He said all the members were apparently 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 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 mobile phones, identification documents, 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," Mr 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 on Saturday and asked him to pray over. He eventually looked inside and he and another member's husband called the authorities.
The men told investigators they believed group members had been "brainwashed" by Ms Chicas, and one expressed concerns that they might harm themselves. One of the children is three, and the others range from 12 to 17.
A sheriff's deputy had spoken to members of the group at 3am on Saturday while they were praying in their parked vehicles outside of a high school. When the deputy made contact, the adults 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, Mr Parker said. The deputy reported everyone appeared safe and he went on his way.
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.
"She appeared normal, calm. We didn't see anything strange," Mr Vides said. His church has 400 members, mostly immigrants from Latin America.
Ms Chicas apparently had formed her own religious group. 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 2am, said neighbour Cheri Kofahl.
Others who knew Ms Chicas said she was devout but hardly fanatic in her religious beliefs.
Former neighbour Ricardo Giron said that Ms Chicas became increasingly religious after she separated from her husband four years ago, but added, "everywhere she was going, she was taking her kids with her. You felt like you could trust her".