It was a weird weekend in Palmdale, where authorities were on the lookout for a breakaway Christian church group that was feared to have undertaken a suicide pact. When the 13 people were found at a local park Sunday morning, however, they were surprised to find out worried family members were looking for them.
Nonetheless, sheriff's Capt. Mike Parker called the group as "cult-like." Its leader, Reyna Chicas, was held for a 72-hour mental evaluation. (And what church group, might we ask, takes off for a weekend of prayer without a schedule or proper place to stay? Members reportedly spent the night at Chicas' house).
The case started Saturday afternoon when to men married to group members reported their wives had taken off for prayer and had left behind letters indicating the end of the world was near and that they wanted to go to heaven.
The women were said to have left behind wallets, identification, mobile phones and other personal items. The group included five adults and eight children.
Sheriff's officials set off on a 22-hour air and ground search in the San Gabriel Mountains and Antelope Valley. At one point a sheriff's deputy reportedly spotted the group praying at a high school at 3 a.m. Sunday but didn't connect the dots.
Then a jogger spotted them praying at 11:40 a.m. at a different spot -- Jackie Robinson Park on the east side of Palmdale -- and the search was over, said sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore.
He said group members "were shocked" to discover they were the subject of such an intense search.
Group leader Chicas was said to be confused about her own identity, leading deputies to commit her to a psych hold.
[Update]: Sheriff's spokesman Steve Whitmore confirmed that Chicas two children, who were part of the breakaway group over the weekend, were placed into the custody of county child welfare workers while her sanity or lack thereof was sorted out.
So was there a suicide pact? Authorities seem unsure. Some of the letters left behind by members indicade they "wanted to onto the next life," said Whitmore. Others read like wills, he said.