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Religious group's alleged leader held after search linked to mass-suicide fears ends

September 19, 2010 |  2:21 pm

Cultleader

The woman identified as the leader of a small religious group was being held for questioning after a 22-hour search sparked by fears of a suicide pact, officials said.

Reyna Marisol Chicas, 32, who has been identified by family members as the leader of the group, initially gave authorities a different name when approached by Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies in a park east of Palmdale, authorities said.

Sheriff's Department spokesman Steve Whitmore called Chicas "disingenuous" about her identity.

The other 12 members of the group, including Chicas' children, voluntarily agreed to be transferred to the Palmdale sheriff's station, Whitmore said.

The group was found around noon at Jackie Robinson Park, east of Palmdale, sitting on blankets laid out on a lush green lawn in the shade of a pine tree. A resident who had seen news reports on the missing group spotted them at the park and called the Sheriff's Department about 11:30 a.m.

When deputies arrived at the park, Chicas was playing with some of the children on the swings, while the others sat on blankets praying, said Capt. Mike Parker. "They seemed shocked," Parker said. "They said we are Christians, and we would never harm ourselves."

When deputies told them that notes and gathered personal belongings they left behind had made relatives suspect otherwise, they reponded by saying, "It's sinful to have [worldly possessions] when you're praying because they bring evil," Parker said.

The group had spent the night at the home of Chicas' friend, he said.

Parker said the department devoted "a huge amount of time" to the manhunt. 

"Could these people benefit from better communication with their family? Certainly." Parker said.

Family members reported the group missing at about 2 p.m. Saturday, after finding they had left behind farewell notes, mortgage statements, cash and cellphones in a purse. The group was known for previous forays into desert and mountain areas, apparently related to belief in an imminent biblical "rapture," when believers would be transported to heaven. 

Whitmore promised extensive follow-up on the case, saying the county Department of Children and Family Services would be involved.

The letters left by the group have been reviewed again, and they read like "a will and testament," he said.

They were addressed to parents and other loved ones and included phrases like "Please take care of, Don't worry, Here's some cash," he said.

Two of the letters written by two 14-year-olds were identical, which Whitmore said may indicate they were coached.

Ricardo Giron, a former neighbor of Chicas', said he was relieved, and not very surprised, to hear the group was safe. 

"She's always very careful with her kids," he said. "I couldn't believe she would hurt them."

Chicas used to baby-sit Giron's children, and their families vacationed together, he said. However, she had recently severed social ties with him as she grew increasingly religious and began spending more time at church, he added.

No criminal charges were pending against Chicas, Whitmore said, but she will be subject to psychological evaluation before she is released.

Whitmore said the Sheriff's Department response, which included helicopters and volunteers on horseback, was warranted given the presence of children in the group.

-- Robert Faturechi in Palmdale

Photo: Los Angeles County Sheriff's deputies question Reyna Marisol Chicas after an extensive manhunt sparked by fears of a mass-suicide pact. Credit: Annie Cusack/Los Angeles Times

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