updated 9/21/2010 5:55:31 AM ET 2010-09-21T09:55:31

Families of the missing fretted. Deputies fanned out across the high desert on horses and in helicopters. Neighbors marveled at the commotion of patrol cars and satellite trucks that appeared suddenly in their quiet streets.

The only people who seemed to take the disappearance of 13 adherents of a breakaway religious sect in stride were the members themselves, who were found enjoying the afternoon in leisure and prayer in a park Sunday.

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"I guess it was a misunderstanding, and I'm sorry about that," Martha Clavel, 39, told KNX radio about 24 hours she and the other three adults and nine children were reported missing by worried husbands.

The two men showed deputies letters saying the group was awaiting an apocalyptic event and would soon see Jesus and their dead relatives in heaven.

They accused the group's purported leader, 32-year-old Reyna Marisol Chicas, of "brainwashing" members of the group based in Palmdale, a northeast Los Angeles County city of 139,000.

"These letters read like a will and testament. They read like goodbye letters," said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore. "Coupled with the two husbands that come in and tell us 'Our wives are missing, we believe they are under the spell of this lady,'" deputies had no choice but to treat the matter seriously, said Whitmore.

The group of Salvadoran immigrants were found just before noon at Jackie Robinson Park near Palmdale on Sunday. Before that, they were spotted by a sheriff's deputy who discovered them praying in their parked vehicles outside of a Palmdale high school very early on Saturday morning.

When the deputy made contact, adults in the group told him they were praying against violence in schools and against sexual immorality, specifically premarital sex.

Later in the afternoon, the two husbands reported the members missing.

In a purse that one member left with her husband, investigators found cell phones, identifications, deeds to property, and letters indicating the adherents were awaiting the Rapture.

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The woman had asked her husband to pray over the purse, sheriff's Captain Mike Parker said.

"In essence, they indicated there may be a journey to the next world," Whitmore said of the letters.

Group member Alma Miranda Pleitez, 28, said fears for their safety were unfounded.

"That's our husband. When you go somewhere overnight, you don't know what's going to happen to you, right?" Alma Miranda Pleitez told KNX radio at the park shortly after she was found. "So you leave your information to your husband."

Video: Missing sect members found, but questions remain (on this page)

By the next morning, up to 70 deputies were combing over a 700 square mile checkerboard of suburban neighborhoods, unfinished subdivisions, weed-covered lots and desert wilderness in search of the missing group members.

On Chicas' usually quiet street, neighbors craned their necks at the deputies and reporters gathered outside her seemingly empty two-story gray stucco home.

Friendly, devout and hapless?
Some described her as a friendly and devout — if somewhat hapless — woman who was devoted to her two young children, a boy and a girl.

But others sketched her as a virtual shut-in, whose children never joined other neighborhood kids in play and who often held late-night multigenerational gatherings in her home.

"She was really quiet. She kept to herself," said across-the-street neighbor Cheri Kofahl, who saw groups of 12 to 15 adults and children gather in Chicas' home several times over the summer.

One night, about a week ago, the group didn't leave until 2 a.m., Kofahl said.

Before apparently forming her own religious group, Chicas was a member of Iglesia De Cristo Miel, a Christian congregation that meets in a large tan church building with a sloping tile roof beside an empty lot in a Palmdale neighborhood.

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Pastor Felipe Vides, whose 400-member parish consists mostly of immigrants from Latin America, said Chicas left the congregation about two years ago without much explanation.

"She appeared normal, calm. We didn't see anything strange," Vides said.

Authorities had known of Chicas' group before this weekend's incident.

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.

Story: Leader of religious sect held for evaluation

This time, the episode ended when deputies, after a tip from a local resident, arrived at the park and found the children playing on swings and the adults on a blanket praying out loud in Spanish.

The adults, who expressed shock at the notion that they might harm themselves, formed a caravan of two minivans and a pickup truck and presumably returned to their worried families.

But Deputy Thomas Kim said Chicas was held for a mental evaluation after authorities determined she was not able to care for herself or others.

Chicas gave investigators a false name and was rambling during questioning, Kim said. She told deputies she had no children, even though her two kids were with her.

The Department of Children and Family Services took temporary custody of her children, ages 12 and 15, Capt. Mike Parker said.

"When all of this came to a head, with the deputies and the media and all, she seemed to disconnect," he said. "She didn't seem to be aware of who she was or her name or that she was their mom."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Missing sect members found, but questions remain

  1. Transcript of: Missing sect members found, but questions remain

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: In Southern California , 13 missing members of a believed religious sect had a lot of people thinking the worst had happened to them, until just a few hours ago. NBC 's Kristen Welker has the latest from Palmdale , California . Kristen , good evening.

    KRISTEN WELKER reporting: Good evening, Lester . This search was so massive, officials with the Department of Justice were involved. LA County authorities had unleashed their full force. But in the end, an alert citizen discovered those missing people right here in this park bringing some peace to a community on edge. For almost 24 hours, fear gripped this Southern California community. Five adults and eight children were reported missing Saturday afternoon. Authorities said they were a part of a cultlike breakaway religious group led by this woman, 32-year-old Reyna Marisol Chicas . Husbands of two of the women in the group reported them missing. They also gave police a purse which one of the women left behind. Inside, belongings, including cell phones, personal identification and chilling notes which reportedly read like a last will and testament .

    Mr. STEVE WHITMORE (Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department): They left behind notes saying that they were going to go visit their deceased relatives, that they were going to go meet Jesus . No words such as suicide or taking our own life were used at all, but the indications seem that that may be a possibility.

    WELKER: The group had once been members of a nearby Christian church , but later started holding their own prayer gatherings. This weekend, as time slipped away, friends and neighbors started to imagine the worst.

    Unidentified Man: I feel really sorry, thinking about their kids.

    Unidentified Woman: I'm completely shocked.

    WELKER: But then...

    Mr. WHITMORE: We found them right here, in this area right here.

    WELKER: An incredible discovery, all 13 people alive, holding an extended prayer vigil in a local park, found after an alert citizen recognized them from news reports. Sheriff's deputies took the reported leader in for questioning and psychological evaluation. No weapons were found.

    Mr. WHITMORE: It is better to overreact than under-react in a situation like this.

    WELKER: LA County authorities couldn't take any chances. The possibility of a suicide pact with religious undertones is so volatile with past cases like Heaven's Gate , where 39 people near San Diego committed mass suicide by eating poisoned pudding and applesauce.

    Mr. BRIAN LEVIN (Criminal Justice Expert): These kinds of behaviors, this kind of rhetoric, this kind of leadership is a cause for concern.

    WELKER: But tonight there is cause for celebration because eight children are back home. Investigators say those people are immigrants from El Salvador . They're still trying to figure out why they disappeared without warning. They say the leader right now seems disoriented. Lester :

    HOLT: Kristen Welker for us tonight,


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