Authorities launched a major search for five members of a cult-like group in Palmdale and at least eight children who were reported missing after leaving a prayer meeting early Saturday in a feared mass suicide plot, Los Angeles County sheriff's officials said.
The group was believed to be traveling in three vehicles: a white 2004 Nissan Quest, a 1995 white Mercury Villager and a newer-model, silver Toyota Tundra, according to the California Highway Patrol, which issued an alert for them.
"It is believed, through further investigation, that [their] intentions are to commit mass suicide," said a CHP alert, which was based on information from sheriff's officials.
But Sheriff's Capt. Mike Parker pointed out that documents left behind by group members do not specifically mention suicide, though they do refer to "going to heaven" and the "end of the world." He added that the missing people have no history of violence or harming themselves.
Authorities began the search after the husbands of two group members walked into a Palmdale sheriff's station at 2 p.m. carrying a bag of belongings the missing people left behind, including identification, cash, cellphones, deeds to homes and letters, officials said.
"The letters essentially state that they [the missing persons] are all going to heaven shortly to meet Jesus and their deceased relatives," the alert said. "Numerous letters found say goodbye to their relatives."
Parker said one of the husbands told deputies that he feared that the adults had been "brainwashed."
The group was last seen on East Avenue R4 in Palmdale at about 1 a.m. Saturday, the CHP alert said.
Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore said the children were ages 3 to 17, including six boys and two girls.
"We do not think this is a hoax. We don't know that this is a potential suicide, but we know that it's real and we're going to find them," Whitmore said.
The adults, including three sisters, belong to a religious sect that broke off from a Palmdale church whose name was unknown, Whitmore said.
Among those missing, the CHP alert said, is Reyna Marisol Chicas, 32, described as the leader of the group.
But as sheriff's patrol cars and several helicopters were scouring the Antelope Valley for the group, former neighbors of Chicas painted a different picture, describing the Salvadoran immigrant as a simple woman who hadn't been schooled beyond the fifth grade and could hardly keep a job let alone have a religious following.
"She was a good mother, always with her kids. She was not fanatic," said Ricardo Giron, 51.
Giron said his family was close to the Chicases. They said Chicas often lied about minor things -- like her job status -- but was a devoted mother. Their children would ride bikes and play computer games together -- and on more than one occasion took camping trips to Yosemite with other families.
Chicas would baby-sit, caring for the Giron children along with her own, Ezequel and Genisis, who authorities said were also missing Saturday night.
"Everywhere she was going, she was taking her kids with her," he said. "You felt like you could trust her."
But when Chicas and her husband separated four years ago, she became increasingly religious, Giron said. Chicas began attending a local church several times a week, spending several hours there each visit.
Giron's wife, Jisela, attended a few times and said Chicas was always there, her children in tow. The church, she said, was a typical Christian congregation. Sermons were in Spanish. Beyond the women dressing modestly, she said, there was nothing that made the largely Latino congregation stand out.
But she said some congregants would meet separately, in their own prayer groups outside the church, and among those groups beliefs could vary. Chicas, she said, never took on a leadership position at the church beyond greeter at Sunday services, but may have been more assertive within a prayer group.
Chicas had slowly severed social ties with the couple -- no longer wanting to drink or go out as they used to.
They last saw her at the church about six months ago.
"This is hard to believe. Cult leader? She was not a serious person, very simple, not professional, not prepared" said Giron.
Relatives of one of the missing women gathered at the Palmdale sheriffs station early Sunday morning.
One woman said her sister-in-law has been with the prayer group in question for some time, and that they often take "trips to the mountains to pray."
Her sister-in-law, she said, told her she was going on a religious trip this weekend and would return Sunday morning.
Sheriff's officials confirmed that this group had taken at least one prayer trip before, but that this trip seemed unusual.
"They've done late-night prayer vigils before, but not in the context of these elements" Parker said. "IDs, money, goodbye notes, all that stuff left behind, put in a purse."
For now, authorities are scouring lit areas, but will have to wait for daylight to tackle more remote terrain.
"At first light you're going to see a helicopter," Parker said. "They're searching what they can for now."