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Missing members of 'cult-like' Palmdale church found alive and well, sheriff says

September 19, 2010 | 12:11 pm

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department said Sunday that it had found the 13 members of a "cult-like" church in Jackie Robinson Park east of Palmdale.

All were alive and well, according to the department.

A massive search for the members began Saturday after family members contacted authorities, saying they feared the group was planning a mass suicide.

The last time the group had been seen was when a deputy reported seeing them while on patrol at Knight High School in Palmdale around 3 a.m. Saturday. That sighting was before the group had been reported missing, according to Sheriff's Capt. Mike Parker.

The group members, authorities said, were very cooperative and told the deputy they were praying to end school violence and sexual immorality. All appeared to be there of their own free will, Parker said.

Parker said they may have visited other schools or other locations where their prayer goals were relevant.

The group was believed to be traveling in three vehicles: a white 2004 Nissan Quest, a 1995 white Mercury Villager and a newer-model silver Toyota Tundra, according to the California Highway Patrol, which issued an alert for them.

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. Saturday carrying a bag of belongings that 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."

Parker said one of the husbands told deputies that he feared that the adults had been "brainwashed." 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's family members said that 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.

-- Robert Faturechi in Palmdale