Nightly News | September 19, 2010
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,