PALMDALE, Calif. (AP) — Deputies searched a wide swath of Southern California early Sunday for a break-off religious sect of 13 people that included children as young as 3 and left behind letters indicating they were awaiting an apocalyptic event and would soon see Jesus and their dead relatives in heaven, authorities said.
The group of El Salvadoran immigrants, described as "cult-like" by sheriff's officials, was led by Reyna Marisol Chicas, a 32-year-old woman from Palmdale in northeast Los Angeles county, sheriff's Captain Mike Parker said.
The group left behind cell phones, identifications, deeds to property, and letters indicating they were awaiting the Rapture.
"Essentially, the letters say they are all going to heaven to meet Jesus and their deceased relatives," sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said. "Some of the letters were saying goodbye."
The items came from a purse that a member of the group had left with her husband Saturday and asked him to pray over. He eventually looked inside and he and another member's husband called authorities, Parker said.
The men told investigators they believe group members had been "brainwashed" by Chicas, and one expressed worries that they might harm themselves, Parker said.
Friends of Chicas said she was devout but hardly fanatic in her religious beliefs.
Former neighbor Ricardo Giron told The Los Angeles Times that Chicas became increasingly religious after she separated from her husband four years ago.
But Giron's wife, Jisela, said the church she attended was a typical Christian congregation and Chicas did not have a leadership role.
The couple said Chicas regularly baby-sat for their children and the two families went on outings together.
"Everywhere she was going, she was taking her kids with her," Giron told the newspaper. "You felt like you could trust her."
A man at Chicas' Palmdale home who identified himself as her brother-in-law said early Sunday morning that he was sure the group would return.
"We see the news tonight and never think you know something like this happen," said the man, who would not provide his first name but said his last name was Orellana. "But they're gonna come back for sure."
Whitmore said the major crimes unit, helicopter patrols and many other deputies were looking for missing people.
They were searching for three vehicles: a silver Toyota Tundra pickup, a 1995 Mercury Villager and a 2004 white Nissan.
Parker said the materials the group left behind suggested they would be in the Antelope Valley area not far from their homes.
About six months ago, the group had planned to head to Vasquez Rocks, a wilderness area near Palmdale, to await a catastrophic earthquake or similar event, but one member of the group revealed details of the trip to relatives, Parker said. The trip was called off and the member kicked out.
The group had broken off from a mainstream Christian church in Palmdale, a high-desert city of 139,000.
Parker did not know what church they had belonged to previously, and it does not appear that they had given their sect a name.
"We've got a group here that's practicing some orthodox and some unorthodox Christianity," Parker said. "Obviously this falls under the unorthodox."
The church from which the group apparently split, Palmdale's Iglesia de Cristo Miel, was deserted early Sunday. A service was scheduled for 11 a.m., according to a sign outside.
According to an emergency bulletin put out by the governor's office, in addition to Chicas, the missing include: 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; Stephanie Serrano, 12.