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09.21.10

The Mysterious California Cult

Christine Pelisek investigates what’s known about the Christian group caught up in apocalyptic fever and found after a large-scale manhunt.

California has always beckoned those on the edge. The shimmering line of the Pacific draws those with initiative, searching the broadest horizon, as well as those who are plainly weird.

And perhaps, this is why California seems to have more than its fair share of cults. Think of the Manson family, Heaven’s Gate, or even Jim Jones and his People's Temple—groups that all, at one point, made their home in the Golden State.

Add to this macabre roster Reyna Chicas, the latest to be accused by authorities to lead a cult in California.

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The strange story began in the Antelope Valley on Saturday when two distraught husbands showed up at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s station with a compelling tale, explaining to deputies that their wives and children were missing, having possibly joined a breakaway Christian cult caught up in extreme apocalyptical Christian beliefs and spearheaded by a charismatic 32-year-old Salvadoran mother of two.

According to the sheriff’s department, the men were concerned that Chicas, the group’s leader, had “brainwashed” the wives and children—shortly before the group had disappeared, one of the men had been given a large purse by his wife, containing the belongings of 13 church members, including eight children. The woman had asked her husband to “pray over these,” said Steve Whitmore, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s department. “He then looked in [the purse] and saw everything and it startled him.”

Was the group planning a group suicide? Or were they really just praying for abstinence from premarital sex and to end school violence, as they claimed? And who was their mysterious leader?

The items included six cellphones, jewelry, cash, deeds, titles to vehicles and property, identification cards and numerous letters that each read like a “will and testament.”

In the letters, which were addressed to family members and friends, members of the group talked about “taking refuge,” “going to heaven,” and meeting Jesus as well as dead relatives. It also included language to include “please take care of” and “don’t worry.”

The meeting between investigators and the two worried husbands sparked a 22-hour air and ground search in the San Gabriel Mountains and Antelope Valley that ended Sunday afternoon when the group was discovered safe and sound in a Palmdale park.

Chicas was put under a 72-hour psychiatric hold at a nearby hospital after she appeared to be confused as to who she was.

“She seemed confused and disconnected,” said Captain Mike Parker of the sheriff's department. “She did not recognize her own name and didn’t recognize her children that were present.”

Her two children, ages 12 and 15, were taken into custody by child-welfare authorities.

By the end, more than 50 deputies were called off the search, and the group members apologized for the misunderstanding. They said they were Christians and would never harm themselves. They had left their worldly possessions behind, they said, because it was “sinful to carry them when praying because they bring evil.”

“I get mixed signals that are troubling to me,” said court-certified cult expert David Clark. “They leave their earthly possessions behind?… To me there has got to be something more serious. The police wouldn’t expend their resources on fluff.”

Was the group planning a group suicide? Or were they really just praying for abstinence from premarital sex and to end school violence, as they claimed? And who was their mysterious leader?

According to Whitmore, the group of Salvadoran immigrants met through a Christian church in Palmdale, then broke away one year ago and began practicing, with Chicas at the helm. “Her followers claimed that she thought of herself as a prophet,” he said.

The group, which consisted of Chicas, three sisters, ages 30, 32 and 40, a 19-year-old son and eight children, met regularly at a friend’s house where Chicas would lead them in prayer. “They would go off and pray all night and in the morning sometimes,” said Parker.

The group was also known to take trips in the desert and mountain areas, apparently because of a belief in Rapture, or end of the world. On one occasion, six months earlier, the group ventured to the rugged Vasquez Rocks in northern Los Angeles County because they believed there was going to be a large earthquake, but one of the members let slip their location and the vigil promptly ended. The group later shunned that member.

“It may have been they went on a very long prayer session,” Whitmore said, and added: “We aren’t going to let this fall off the map.”

Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.