3 Jan 2011

Confused California cult leader just the latest false prophet to endanger followers with apocalyptic fever

The Daily Beast - September 21, 2010

The Mysterious California Cult

by Christine Pelisek

Christine Pelisek investigates what’s known about the Christian group caught up in apocalyptic fever and found after a large-scale manhunt.

California has always beckoned those on the edge. The shimmering line of the Pacific draws those with initiative, searching the broadest horizon, as well as those who are plainly weird.

And perhaps, this is why California seems to have more than its fair share of cults. Think of the Manson family, Heaven’s Gate, or even Jim Jones and his People's Temple—groups that all, at one point, made their home in the Golden State.

Add to this macabre roster Reyna Chicas, the latest to be accused by authorities to lead a cult in California.

Gus Ruelas/AP Photo

The strange story began in the Antelope Valley on Saturday when two distraught husbands showed up at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s station with a compelling tale, explaining to deputies that their wives and children were missing, having possibly joined a breakaway Christian cult caught up in extreme apocalyptical Christian beliefs and spearheaded by a charismatic 32-year-old Salvadoran mother of two.

According to the sheriff’s department, the men were concerned that Chicas, the group’s leader, had “brainwashed” the wives and children—shortly before the group had disappeared, one of the men had been given a large purse by his wife, containing the belongings of 13 church members, including eight children. The woman had asked her husband to “pray over these,” said Steve Whitmore, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s department. “He then looked in [the purse] and saw everything and it startled him.”

The items included six cellphones, jewelry, cash, deeds, titles to vehicles and property, identification cards and numerous letters that each read like a “will and testament.”

In the letters, which were addressed to family members and friends, members of the group talked about “taking refuge,” “going to heaven,” and meeting Jesus as well as dead relatives. It also included language to include “please take care of” and “don’t worry.”

The meeting between investigators and the two worried husbands sparked a 22-hour air and ground search in the San Gabriel Mountains and Antelope Valley that ended Sunday afternoon when the group was discovered safe and sound in a Palmdale park.

Chicas was put under a 72-hour psychiatric hold at a nearby hospital after she appeared to be confused as to who she was.

“She seemed confused and disconnected,” said Captain Mike Parker of the sheriff's department. “She did not recognize her own name and didn’t recognize her children that were present.”

Her two children, ages 12 and 15, were taken into custody by child-welfare authorities.

By the end, more than 50 deputies were called off the search, and the group members apologized for the misunderstanding. They said they were Christians and would never harm themselves. They had left their worldly possessions behind, they said, because it was “sinful to carry them when praying because they bring evil.”

“I get mixed signals that are troubling to me,” said court-certified cult expert David Clark. “They leave their earthly possessions behind?… To me there has got to be something more serious. The police wouldn’t expend their resources on fluff.”

Was the group planning a group suicide? Or were they really just praying for abstinence from premarital sex and to end school violence, as they claimed? And who was their mysterious leader?

According to Whitmore, the group of Salvadoran immigrants met through a Christian church in Palmdale, then broke away one year ago and began practicing, with Chicas at the helm. “Her followers claimed that she thought of herself as a prophet,” he said.

The group, which consisted of Chicas, three sisters, ages 30, 32 and 40, a 19-year-old son and eight children, met regularly at a friend’s house where Chicas would lead them in prayer. “They would go off and pray all night and in the morning sometimes,” said Parker.

The group was also known to take trips in the desert and mountain areas, apparently because of a belief in Rapture, or end of the world. On one occasion, six months earlier, the group ventured to the rugged Vasquez Rocks in northern Los Angeles County because they believed there was going to be a large earthquake, but one of the members let slip their location and the vigil promptly ended. The group later shunned that member.

“It may have been they went on a very long prayer session,” Whitmore said, and added: “We aren’t going to let this fall off the map.”

Christine Pelisek is staff reporter for The Daily Beast, covering crime. She previously was a reporter at the LA Weekly, where she covered crime for the last five years. In 2008, she won three Los Angeles Press Club awards, one for her investigative story on the Grim Sleeper.

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Los Angeles Times - September 25, 2010

Failure doesn't stop predictions of the apocalypse

The recent scare over a missing Palmdale church group reflects the continuing belief in the end times, especially amid feelings of desperation.

By Robert Faturechi, Los Angeles Times

Religious leaders prophesying a date for the apocalypse have always faced a unique challenge to their credibility: Everyone who's tried that before has turned out to be wrong.

But the predictions continue. A week ago, concerns flared in Palmdale when a small Christian group was reported missing after taking off into the night on a mysterious religious trip. Authorities said the group, led by a Salvadoran immigrant, left farewell letters to loved ones that indicated their belief that the end of the world was near.

The 22-hour search that followed commanded attention from media outlets worldwide, but scholars say the idea of end times followed by a messianic arrival is an ancient one that spans religions. In Christianity, the concept often includes an event referred to as the "rapture," when Christ will return in spectacular fashion and separate the "sheep" (his followers) from the "goats" (nonbelievers).

The idea can be a comfort to the disenfranchised, a guarantee that justice will be served and scores settled, said theology scholar Cecil Robeck Jr. In a time of joblessness and economic frustration, Robeck said, that pledge can be particularly appealing.

"People are desperate. When someone says, 'You're in a terrible situation now, but if you'll follow me, I'll make it OK,' people are hungry, they need hope, they'll follow," said Robeck, a Pentecostal minister and professor of church history at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.

That appeal is part of the reason that the concept of the rapture, when true believers are expected to be lifted into heaven, is most common in churches with poorer, less educated congregations, Robeck said.

The Palmdale group was said to be predominantly composed of recent Salvadoran immigrants. Former neighbors said its leader, Reyna Marisol Chicas, 32, had left school after fifth grade and struggled to find steady work.

The group was discovered Sunday comfortably gathered in a Palmdale-area park, ending a 22-hour search. No arrests were made and no criminal charges have been filed, according to the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. But Chicas was placed into an involuntary mental health evaluation after she appeared disconnected from reality and failed to recognize her children, authorities said.

Group members called Chicas an inspiration. She was said to have been a congregant at a nearby church before breaking away not long ago. The Palmdale area is sprinkled with predominantly Latino churches, where it's not unusual for congregants to form groups that meet separately and incorporate nonconventional beliefs, area residents said.

Richard Flory, a USC sociologist who studies religion in America, said the idea of the rapture can be a persuasive tool for conversion.

"It brings a subliminal fear," he said. "It says you better be ready because this thing can happen at any time."

Those who expect the end of the world also often believe that there will be signs that it's coming, the scholars said. Natural disasters, such as major earthquakes and fires, often bring spikes of apocalyptic forecasts.

An evangelical Christian website, RaptureReady.com, features a regularly updated "rapture index" that gauges the imminent approach of the world's end. It's calculated by adding quantitative measurements for a number of supposed apocalyptic signs, including volcanoes, drug abuse, drought and liberalism.

But even many ardent believers dismiss the idea that the rapture can be predicted.

Tim LaHaye, an evangelical Christian minister, became famous with "Left Behind," his hugely popular series of novels about the end days. LaHaye's work, modern-day stories based on the Book of Revelation, has been criticized for going too far in its extreme and violent depiction of the end of the world and its aftermath.

But even LaHaye said that while spreading word of the concept is a blessing, forecasting its date is misguided.

"They're disobeying the Scripture, which says no man knows the day or the hour. Anytime anyone sets a date, they're wrong because no one knows that date," LaHaye said. "It's just unguided enthusiasm. Every day you read the newspaper, and ask, 'Is there any hope for the world?' It's just getting worse and worse, and people think there's got to be something better."

As for why forecasters of end times and the rapture still gain followings despite their poor track record, Robeck explains it in secular terms.

"People still go to Las Vegas because they hope they will win," he said. "I used to live in Las Vegas. They never will."

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