A disturbing story developed this weekend in Southern California that involves a very religious "cult like" group that apparently left everything behind in preparation for the after life. The group of 13 people included children as young as three.
The good news is that the group was found safe midday Sunday.
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said the 13 adults and children were spotted late morning praying at Jackie Robinson Park in Los Angeles County. They said a tip lead them to the group.
It was Saturday afternoon when rumors began floating around that the group was planning a mass suicide causing detectives, mounted patrols and helicopters to comb a broad swatch of mountains, high desert and canyons early Sunday morning in search of the group.
The case brought to mind for many a cult called Heaven's Gate. In 1997, members apparently thought the comet Hale-Bopp was some kind of sign that they meant they were to commit suicide. Police found 39 bodies inside a Southern California home. Each held five dollars and some coins, were covered in a purple cloth and was wearing Nike tennis shoes.
This short disappearance involved a group of El Salvadoran immigrants led by a 32-year-old woman named Reyna Marisol Chicas from a community north of Los Angeles, sheriff's Captain Mike Parker said in a Saturday night news conference. Many left behind goodbye notes, along with cell phones, identificatin and deeds of property.
"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."
Police were initally tipped to the case because a husband of one of the members was handed a purse filled with the items and told to pray over them.
He looked inside and then called police.
That man told investigators he believes 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."
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."
So a story that caught the attention of many across California stayed a "what if" tale with the discovery in a park Sunday.