Missing Sect Members Found, Leader Hospitalized

Group Found Alive and Well in a California Park, According to LA Sherriff

ABC News/September 19, 2010

The 13 members of a Southern California religious sect whose disappearance sparked a frantic search were found safe today, praying in a Palmdale park, police said.

Some of the group expressed surprise and confusion at the concern over their apparent disappearance.

"We are OK, don't you see me?" a member of the group who identified herself only as Anna told ABC Radio. "I'm OK, my son, my dogs, everybody's OK.

"We eat like you guys; we drink the same soda that you do," she said. "We didn't see nothing bad, and we're OK."

When asked why they had all left their cell phones at their homes, Anna said: "I don't want to interrupt me when I'm doing my -- the Jesus stuff."

Members say they often pray early in the morning and intentionally leave their worldly possessions behind in hopes that one day they'll miraculously be taken to Heaven.

Officials said that the group broke no laws, but Reyna Marisol Chicas, who has been identified as the leader of the 13 members of the sect, was hospitalized for a mental evaluation after they were found.

Chicas, 32, was placed under a 72-hour mandatory hold after she was deemed unable to care for herself or others, said Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Thomas Kim.

Chicas also gave police a false name and stated that she did not have any children, though her two kids were there with her at the time, Kim said.

The news that the group, which includes children as young as 3, were found alive and well came as a surprise even to the police spokesman, who was holding a news conference to update reporters about the search when he was informed.

Spokesman Steve Whitmore paused as another member of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department whispered in his ear, and then said, "They are all alive and well. I was just given that update. That is the best news of the day."

Whitmore said the group was found at 11:55 a.m. PT at Jackie Robinson Park in Palmdale.

The group left behind cell phones, identification, deeds to property and disturbing letters before disappearing on Saturday, according to Los Angeles County Sheriff's Captain Mike Parker. Authorities said it appeared they had gone off to await an apocalyptic event.

"Essentially, the letters say they are all going to heaven to meet Jesus and their deceased relatives," Whitmore said at an earlier news conference today. "Some of the letters were saying goodbye."

"They indicated they were going to the next life, if you will. I'm not quoting exactly, I'm paraphrasing of course, but that's essentially what they said," he added.

The major crimes unit, helicopter patrols and a number of deputies searched for the 13 Salvadoran immigrants today, according to Whitmore.

The husband of one of the missing sect members said his wife left a purse with him that contained the letters and other items, and she asked him to pray over it. After the man eventually looked in the purse, he -- along with another member's husband -- contacted the authorities.

"Apparently, they told deputies, the Palmdale Sheriff's Station investigators, that they were concerned that they believed their wives were under 'the spell,' they used that kind of language," Whitmore said.

"So obviously, we became interested in that, and then we found out there were children and there were adults that were missing, we began to search," he said.

A house in Palmdale, believed to be Chicas' residence, was found empty on Sunday.

A man who was found at the home early Sunday and identified himself as her brother-in-law said he expected the group to return.

"We see the news tonight and never think, you know, something like this happen. But they're going to come back for sure," said the man, who identified himself only with his last name of Orellana.

Materials left behind by the group have led police to believe they will be in the Antelope Valley area.

Six months ago the group planned to go to Vasquez Rocks, near Palmdale, to await a catastrophic event, but the trip was called off after a member of the group told a relative of the plans. The member was then ostracized from the group.

The group split off from Palmdale's Iglesia de Cristo Miel. The church was a regular congregation and Chicas was not in any sort of leadership role, Chicas' former neighbor Jisela Giron said.

"Everywhere she was going, she was taking her kids with her," Giron told The Los Angeles Times.

"You felt like you could trust her," Jisela's husband Ricardo Giron told the newspaper, adding that she became increasingly religious after separating from her husband four years ago.

According to an emergency bulletin posted by the governor's office, in addition to Chica, the missing included: Norma Isela Serrano, 31; Alma Alicia Miranda Pleitez, 28; Martha Clavel, 39; Jose Clavel, 15; Crystal Clavel, 3; Roberto Tejada, 18; Jonathan Tejada, 17; Hugo Tejada, 3; Ezequel Chicas, 15; Genisis Chicas, 12; Bryan Rivera, 17; and Stephanie Serrano, 12.

In an interview with "Good Morning America" this morning former FBI agent and ABC News consultant Brad Garrett said that the situation was quite urgent.

"You're talking about people that have left notes and have apparently talked about moving on to another life. And if you compare that to Jim Jones and Heaven's Gate, its people that are very determined that life after this life is going to be much better," he said.

"What they do is convince people that life here is not any good anymore, that we've become inhumane or whatever the trick may be to convince people that life is not what it should be," Garrett said. "So as a result we're going to move on, were gonna be together in the afterlife, as this world, the material world disintegrates."

People susceptible to these cult-like groups tend to feel lost in life and groups like this empower them, Garrett said. Combining this sense of brotherhood with isolation and a charismatic leader can lead to unfortunate circumstances, like the situation that may be unfolding now, he said.

"I would guess that they have gone to a place they have been before," Garrett said. "Apparently according to previous reporting, they had talked about this and picked a location previously. So I would be surprised if law enforcement is not honing down right now where these people may be."

ABC News' Mike von Fremd, ABC Radio's Alex Stone and The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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