Published November 30, 2015
Families of the missing fretted. Deputies fanned out across the high desert on horses and in helicopters. Neighbors marveled at the commotion of patrol cars and satellite trucks that appeared suddenly in their quiet streets.
The only people who seemed to take the disappearance of 13 adherents of a breakaway religious sect in stride were the members themselves, who were found enjoying the afternoon in leisure and prayer in a park Sunday.
"I guess it was a misunderstanding, and I'm sorry about that," Martha Clavel, 39, told KNX radio about 24 hours she and the other three adults and nine children were reported missing by worried husbands.
The two men showed deputies letters saying the group was awaiting an apocalyptic event and would soon see Jesus and their dead relatives in heaven.
They accused the group's purported leader, 32-year-old Reyna Marisol Chicas, of "brainwashing" members of the group based in Palmdale, a northeast Los Angeles County city of 139,000.
"These letters read like a will and testament. They read like goodbye letters," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore. "Coupled with the two husbands that come in and tell us 'Our wives are missing, we believe they are under the spell of this lady,'" deputies had no choice but to treat the matter seriously, said Whitmore.
Before Sunday, when the group of El Salvadoran immigrants were found just before noon at Jackie Robinson Park near Palmdale, they were last seen very early Saturday by a sheriff's deputy who discovered them praying in their parked vehicles outside of a Palmdale high school.
When the deputy made contact, adults in the group told him they were praying against violence in schools and against sexual immorality, specifically premarital sex.
Later in the afternoon, the two men reported the members missing.
In a purse that one member left with her husband, investigators found cell phones, identifications, deeds to property, and letters indicating the adherents were awaiting the Rapture.
The woman had asked her husband to pray over the purse, sheriff's Captain Mike Parker said.
"In essence, they indicated there may be a journey to the next world," Whitmore said of the letters.
Group member Alma Miranda Pleitez, 28, said fears for their safety were unfounded.
"That's our husband. When you go somewhere overnight, you don't know what's going to happen to you right?" Alma Miranda Pleitez told KNX radio at the park shortly after she was found. "So you leave your information to your husband."
By the next morning, up to 70 deputies were combing over a 700 square mile checkerboard of suburban neighborhoods, unfinished subdivisions, weed-covered lots and desert wilderness in search of the missing group members.
On Chicas' usually quiet street, neighbors craned their necks at the deputies and reporters gathered outside her seemingly empty two-story gray stucco home.
Some described her as a friendly and devout — if somewhat hapless — woman who was devoted to her two young children, a boy and a girl.
But others sketched her as a virtual shut-in, whose children never joined other neighborhood kids in play and who often held late-night multigenerational gatherings in her home.
"She was really quiet. She kept to herself," said across-the-street neighbor Cheri Kofahl, who saw groups of 12 to 15 adults and children gather in Chicas' home several times over the summer.
One night, about a week ago, the group didn't leave until 2 a.m., Kofahl said.
Before apparently forming her own religious group, Chicas was a member of Iglesia De Cristo Miel, a Christian congregation that meets in a large tan church building with a sloping tile roof beside an empty lot in a Palmdale neighborhood.
Pastor Felipe Vides, whose 400-member parish consists mostly of immigrants from Latin America, said Chicas left the congregation about two years ago without much explanation.
"She appeared normal, calm. We didn't see anything strange," Vides said.
Authorities had known of Chicas' group before this weekend's incident.
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.
This time, the episode ended when deputies, after a tip from a local resident, arrived at the park and found the children playing on swings and the adults on a blanket praying out loud in Spanish.
The adults, who expressed shock at the notion that they might harm themselves, formed a caravan of two minivans and a pickup truck and presumably returned to their worried families.
But Deputy Thomas Kim said Chicas was held for a mental evaluation after authorities determined she was not able to care for herself or others.
Chicas gave investigators a false name and was rambling during questioning, Kim said. She told deputies she had no children, even though her two kids were with her.
The children were in sheriff's protective custody Sunday afternoon, Kim said.
News that the group was found safely came as Whitmore was briefing reporters on the ongoing search.
He had just answered a question about Chicas' relationship with her former church when a deputy pulled him aside and whispered in his ear. Relief washed over his face as he struggled not to grin.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we just found them," he said, allowing his face to break into a smile. "They are alive and well."
Associated Press writers contributing to this report include Christopher Weber and Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles and Ana Elena Azpurua in New York.