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Missing sect members found; Leader evaluated

September 12, 2010 12:00:00 AM PDT
Missing members of a Palmdale-based religious group feared to be involved in a mass suicide plot were found unharmed, praying at a park in the Antelope Valley, authorities said.Search crews found the group after receiving a phone call from a Palmdale resident who said he learned of the missing group watching Eyewitness News on Sunday morning. He called the police when he saw a group fitting the description while exercising at the park.

The group, comprised of at least five adults and eight children, was found at Jackie Robinson Park on Avenue R in Palmdale shortly before noon Sunday. Authorities said all members of the group were safe and sound.

However, officials said the leader of the group, 32-year-old Reyna Marisol Chicas of Palmdale, has been hospitalized after showing signs of mental instability. She is set to undergo a mental health evaluation.

"She claims to be not who she is," said Steve Whitmore, the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department spokesman. "We have everybody who tells us among their own group that she is who she is. So, we'll find out. Is it a strange story? Absolutely. But the good news is, is that the kids, the adults, even the animals, everybody is OK."

Chicas is the mother of two of the missing children.

The group said it was a misunderstanding and that they never intended on committing suicide.

"I so apologize, so much, because we did not mean to make anybody feel bad," said group member Martha Tejada, 39. "That's a crazy idea. I'm a Christian and I read the word of God. I know that's a sin and I know life with God is so wonderful that, why would I do something like that?"

Authorities stress that the group did not break any laws, but Chicas will remain hospitalized under a mandatory 72-hour hold.

Earlier in the day, a mobile command post was established at Pearblossom Park as helicopters, mounted patrols and detectives from across Los Angeles County spread out through Palmdale in search of the missing people.

The group of El Salvadoran immigrants disappeared, leaving behind letters as well as a significant amount of personal belongings. They were last seen by a sheriff's deputy on patrol around 3 a.m. Saturday as they prayed in their parked vehicles outside of a Palmdale high school.

According to Capt. Mike Parker, when the deputy made contact with them, the adults in the group said they were praying against violence in schools and against premarital sex. Parker said the five adults and eight children were in three vehicles outside Pete Knight High School. The deputy said everyone appeared safe and he went on his way.

"Essentially, (the notes said) we're going to go visit Jesus. We're going to visit our deceased relatives. They said goodbye to their living relatives," Whitmore said.

"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," Whitmore added.

In total, six boys and two girls, ranging from 3 to 17 years old, were reported missing.

Other adults reported missing included three women who are sisters.

Neighbors who lived near Chicas said her family kept to themselves.

"It's a quiet neighborhood," said Palmdale resident Cheri Kofahl. "There was a wife and a husband that lived there with two small children. The little girl was about 5 and the little boy was about 7 or 8. They were really quiet people with nothing out of the ordinary. Nice people."

Two husbands of group members reported their wives missing after one husband found a purse with letters inside, indicating a reunion with deceased relatives following a type of catastrophic event.

"Apparently, they told deputies, the Palmdale Sheriff's Station investigators, that they were concerned that they believed their wives were under 'the spell,'" Whitmore said. "They used that kind of language. So obviously, we became interested in that, and then we found out there were children and there were adults that were missing," Whitmore said.

According to an emergency bulletin posted by the governor's office, in addition to Chica and Tejada, the missing included:

  • Norma Isela Serrano, 31.
  • Alma Alicia Miranda Pleitez, 28.
  • 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.

    No information was provided on a possible 14th missing person.

    The group had apparently split off from a church in Palmdale called Iglesia de Cristo Miel.

    The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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