Families fear mass suicide as deputies search remote areas for church members [Updated]
[Updated at 9:12 a.m.: Authorities said the search also included civil volunteers and horse-mounted posse who were roaming through remote areas of the Antelope Valley.
So far there has been no sign of the group, but the Sheriff's Department plans to continue the operation all day.]
One woman told The Times that her sister-in-law has been with the group and that they often take "trips to the mountains to pray."
Her sister-in-law, she said, told her she was going on a religious trip this weekend and would return Sunday morning. Sheriff's officials said that members of the group had taken at least one prayer trip before but that this trip seemed unusual.
"They've done late-night prayer vigils before, but not in the context of these elements," said Capt. Mike Parker said. "IDs, money, goodbye notes, all that stuff left behind, put in a purse."
Early Sunday, authorities were scouring lighted areas and waiting for daylight to tackle more remote terrain.
"At first light, you're going to see a helicopter," Parker said. "They're searching what they can for now."
Parker said that documents left behind by group members do not specifically mention suicide, though they do refer to "going to heaven" and the "end of the world." He added that the missing people have no history of violence or harming themselves.
Authorities began the search after the husbands of two group members walked into a Palmdale sheriff's station at 2 p.m. carrying a bag of belongings the missing people left behind, including identification, cash, cellphones, deeds to homes and letters, officials said.
"The letters essentially state that they [the missing persons] are all going to heaven shortly to meet Jesus and their deceased relatives," the alert said. "Numerous letters found say goodbye to their relatives."
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said the children were ages 3 to 17, including six boys and two girls.
The adults, including three sisters, belong to a religious sect that broke off from a Palmdale church whose name was unknown, Whitmore said.
Among those missing, the CHP alert said, is Reyna Marisol Chicas, 32, described as the leader of the group.
But former neighbors of Chicas painted a different picture, describing the Salvadoran immigrant as a simple woman who hadn't been schooled beyond the fifth grade and could hardly keep a job let alone have a religious following.
"She was a good mother, always with her kids. She was not fanatic," said Ricardo Giron, 51.
Giron said his family was close to Chicas' family. Giron family members said Chicas often lied about minor things -- like her job status -- but was a devoted mother. Their children would ride bikes and play computer games together, they said, and on more than one occasion took camping trips to Yosemite with other families.
Giron said Chicas would baby-sit, caring for the Giron children along with her own, Ezequel and Genisis, who authorities said were also missing Saturday night.
"Everywhere she was going, she was taking her kids with her," he said. "You felt like you could trust her."
When Chicas and her husband separated four years ago, she became increasingly religious, Giron said. She began attending a local church several times a week, spending several hours there each visit, he said.
Giron's wife, Jisela, attended a few times and said Chicas was always there, her children in tow. The church, she said, was a typical Christian congregation. Sermons were in Spanish. Beyond the women dressing modestly, she said, there was nothing that made the largely Latino congregation stand out.
But she said some congregants would meet separately, in their own prayer groups outside the church, and among those groups beliefs could vary. Chicas, she said, never took on a leadership position at the church beyond greeter at Sunday services but may have been more assertive within a prayer group.
Chicas had slowly severed social ties with the couple -- no longer wanting to drink or go out as they used to, the Girons said. They last saw her at the church about six months ago, they said.
"This is hard to believe. Cult leader? She was not a serious person, very simple, not professional, not prepared," Ricardo Giron said.
-- Robert Faturechi in Palmdale
Upper photo: L.A. County sheriff's deputies Jon Schnereger, left, and Jason Brandenburg watch the home of a missing church member. Credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times
Lower photo: Reyna Marisol Chicas in an undated photo. Credit: Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department