Woman at center of mass suicide search 'not a fanatic,' neighbors say
As sheriff's patrol cars and several helicopters were searching the Antelope Valley for more than a dozen missing people tied to a cult-like group, different portraits were emerging of the group's alleged leader.
Authorities fear Reyna Marisol Chicas, 32 of Palmdale, might be bent on mass suicide.
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.
"This is hard to believe. Cult leader? She was not a serious person, very simple, not professional, not prepared" said Ricardo Giron, 51. "She was a good mother, always with her kids. She was not fanatic,"
Giron said his family was close to the Chicases. They 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 -- and on more than one occasion took camping trips to Yosemite with other families.
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."
But when Chicas and her husband separated four years ago, she became increasingly religious, Giron said. Chicas began attending a local church several times a week, spending several hours there each visit.
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.
They last saw her at the church about six months ago.
According to a Sheriff's Department bulletin issued early Sunday:
There was no evidence found that specifically indicates the missing people intend to harm themselves. There is no history of violence in the family. However, the husbands expressed concern that their families had been brainwashed and that suicide may be an intended outcome for the group.
The husbands explained that the missing people had met Reyna Chicas at an area Christian church, but had broken away from that church and formed a separate group that included both traditional and non-traditional practices and beliefs.
About six months ago, the group had gone on a similar outing to the Vasquez Rocks in Agua Dulce, in the apparent belief that there was going to be a major earthquake. One of the group had apparently informed a family member of their intentions, which resulted in the cancellation of that event, and that group member was thereafter ostracized from the group.
--Robert Faturechi in Palmdale
Photo: At her Palmdale home, Jisela Giron, a former neighbor of alleged cult leader Reyna Marisol Chicas, contemplates the religious group's fate and the well-being of the missing children. Giron attended church with Chicas and said she never noticed anything unusual about her behavior. (Allen J. Schaben, Los Angeles Times)