Police and volunteers fanned out across southern California before first light yesterday in a desperate search for a "cult-like" group of 13 people, including children as young as three, that had driven off into the mountains after leaving messages saying they were going to heaven to meet Jesus.
Authorities in Palmdale, north of Los Angeles, said they feared a mass suicide by the group of El Salvadoran immigrants, led by led by Reyna Marisol Chicas, a 32-year-old woman accused of "brainwashing" by the husbands of two group members.
The group had previously taken trips into the mountains to pray, the police said, but this trip appeared different - and far more worrying.
They left behind mobile phones, identification documents, property deeds and letters suggesting that they were awaiting the Rapture. One of the missing women had left a handbag with the letters, deeds and phones with her husband, asking him to pray over it. He eventually opened it and took it to police. "Essentially, the letters say they are all going to heaven to meet Jesus and their deceased relatives," a sheriff's spokesman said. "Some of the letters were saying goodbye."
The group held a prayer meeting on Saturday afternoon and then headed off in a convoy of three vehicles: a silver Toyota Tundra pick-up truck, a Mercury Villager and a white Nissan. Nine of the missing were children of group members, including two three year olds and two 12 year olds. The adults included three sisters.
Police said they would scramble a helicopter after dawn to search the Antelope Valley and other areas of the mountainous desert. Officers on horseback had already set off in search of the group, and volunteers joined the hunt.
Mike Parker the Sheriff's Captain told reporters that the group had caused alarm before. Six months ago, it 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, and the trip was called off. The member was kicked out, he said. The sect had apparently split from a local church months earlier, according to local reports, though little was known about Ms Chicas. A neighbour who had employed Ms Chicas as a babysitter told the Los Angeles Times that she had grown more religious after parting from her husband four years ago, but had not appeared extreme or dangerous.
"She was a good mother, always with her kids. She was not fanatic. You felt like you could trust her," Ricardo Giron told the paper, describing Ms Chicas as a simple woman who had not been educated beyond the age of 10. "This is hard to believe. Cult leader? She was not a serious person, very simple, not professional, not prepared."
Captain Parker said it did not appear that the group had given their sect a formal name. "We've got a group here that's practicing some orthodox and some unorthodox Christianity."
Palmdale was among the fastest-growing cities in California as the housing boom gathered steam in the last decade, with families attracted by its conservative values and good schools. Its population stands at around 150,000.
Ms Chicas and her followers were reported missing at 2pm on Saturday, and as alarm about their intentions escalated, the Los Angeles County Sheriff, Steve Whitmore, made a television appeal for them to return. "If you're watching this, come home," Mr Whitmore said. "Come home alive to the people who care for you."Reuse content