Image: Reyna Chicas
AP
Reyna Chicas, 32, is the leader of the "cult-like" group missing in Southern California, officials say.
NBC, msnbc.com and news services
updated 9/19/2010 3:24:29 AM ET 2010-09-19T07:24:29

Officials in Southern California issued an emergency alert late Saturday for six adults and eight children who are members of a "cult-like" group believed to be planning a mass suicide.

"They were awaiting the rapture or some other catastrophic event," Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department Captain Mike Parker said.

Steve Whitmore, a spokesman for the sheriff's department, told a hastily called news conference covered by KNBC that the group believed "they were going to meet Jesus or deceased relatives."

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He said deputies were searching the desert for the group, believed to be six adults and six boys and two girls. The children range in age from 3 to 17, Whitmore said.

The notes did not use the term suicide but did say "they wanted to go on to the next life," Whitmore said.

'Fundamentalist'
The group apparently included members of three families of El Salvadoran immigrants, he said. Whitmore described the church as "fundamentalist in nature" and a "close-knit organization".

The group from Palmdale was believed to be traveling in three vehicles, a 2004 Nissan Quest, a 1995 Mercury Villager and a silver Toyota Tundra pickup, the California Highway Patrol said.

However, the members may have changed vehicles after disappearing, the CHP told msnbc.com.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department confirmed to KNBC late Saturday that its detectives were actively investigating the case.

Two husbands of two of the church members reported the persons missing at around 2 p.m. PDT (5 p.m. EDT), BNO News reported.

Parker said one of the men had a purse he was asked to hold by one of the group members. Identification documents, cell phones, deeds to property and letters indicating they were awaiting the end of the world were found inside.

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Parker told The Associated Press the group's leader, Reyna Chicas, 32, of Palmdale, is among the missing group, which includes three sisters.

Earlier this year, the group had planned to head to Vasquez Rocks, a wilderness area near Palmdale, to await a similar event, but one member of the group revealed details of the trip to family members and it was called off.

"That person was ostracized from the group and kicked out," Parker said.

'Brainwashed'
Authorities said the group had previously been members of a mainstream Christian church

Family members expressed fears to investigators that they had been "brainwashed," Parker said.

Parker did not know what church they had belonged to previously, and it does not appear that they had given their break-off group a name.

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"We've got a group here that's practicing some orthodox and some unorthodox Christianity," Parker said. "Obviously this falls under the unorthodox." Officials earlier reported nine children missing, but later revised the count to eight.

The missing group was last seen around 1 a.m. PDT (4 a.m. EDT) on Saturday at a prayer meeting at the Palmdale church, according to the CHP.

"It is believed, through further investigation, that the missing persons' intentions are to commit mass suicide," the CHP said.

According to an emergency bulletin put out by the governor's office, in addition to Chicas, the missing include: Norma Isela Serrano, 31, Alma Alicia Miranda Pleitez, 28; Martha Clavel, 39; Jose Clavel, 15; Crystal Clavel, 3; Roberto Tejada, 18; Jonathan Tejada, 17; Hugo Tejada, 3; Ezequel Chicas, 15; Genisis Chicas, 12; Bryan Rivera, 17; Stephanie Serrano, 12.

KNBC, msnbc.com staff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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