After a frantic 24-hour search by local authorities, thirteen missing members of a breakaway religious sect in Palmdale, CA, were found alive and well Sunday afternoon. Though police had feared a mass-suicide scenario, the five Salvadoran women and eight children were found praying in a park near a high school. What sparked the intensive search with helicopters, horses, and officers on foot — and what is this "cult-like" group? (Watch an AP report about the search)
What do we know about the sect?
Police say the group, led by a 33-year-old woman named Reyna Marisol Chicas, broke off from a local Latino evangelical Christian congregation known as Iglesia De Cristo Miel. The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office described the sect as "cult-like," based on reports from one of the women's husbands who said that group members had been "brainwashed."
Why did the police start searching for them?
At about 2 p.m. Saturday, two concerned husbands showed up at the sheriff's office with a purse the women had left behind with instructions to pray over it. Inside: ID, cash, cellphones, deeds to homes and titles to cars, and letters suggesting "they were all going to heaven to meet Jesus and their deceased relatives," says sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore. While the notes didn't specify suicide, some did mention the "end of the world" and "every single letter reads like a will and testament."
Who is Reyna Marisol Chicas?
Tagged as the leader of the sect, Chicas is an immigrant from El Salvador like the cult's other adult members. Current and former neighbors say the mother of two became increasingly religious after separating from her husband four years ago, but described her as a simple woman with a fifth grade education who had trouble keeping a job and often lied about small things. Pastor Felipe Vides of the Cristo Miel church says Chicas stopped attending services two years ago, and was a nondescript member with no leadership position.
What is Chicas telling police?
Not much, so far. She's been taken in for 72 hours of psychiatric evaluation, after telling police her name was Nancy and denying her identity even when confronted with documents verifying it, Whitmore says. "Her intent doesn't seem to be [to deceive]. She just seems very confused."
What do the police think the group was doing?
They're not sure. Before the women were reported missing, a sheriff's deputy spotted them near a high school, purportedly praying against violence in schools and premarital sex. Capt. Mike Parker of the sheriff's office speculates that they may have been on a prayer tour of several local schools. (This isn't their first planned disappearance: Six months ago, the sect had apparently strategized an excursion to the nearby Vasquez Rocks wilderness area to await the Rapture, or at least a catastrophic natural disaster, but called it off when one of the members, since kicked out, told a relative about the trip.)
So why leave worldly possessions behind?
According to sect members, they left their valuables behind them to make their prayer less sinful, since possessions bring evil, the sheriff's department reports. They were angry that such a big deal was made of their outing, but "it is better to overreact than underreact," says Whitmore.