Last Sunday, there was a massive "manhunt" in southern California for thirteen people (five adults and eight children) who had gone missing with a leader of a religious sect named Reyna Chicas. Two husbands feared they were planning a mass suicide and authorities were alerted.
Good for the authorities that they took the husbands' concerns seriously. One husband brought them his wife's purse which contained identifications, deeds to property, cell phone and letters indicating they were waiting for the end of the world. The Sheriff spokesman said the letters "read like a last will and testament, like goodbye letters."
Six months earlier, Chicas, a Salvadoran divorcee and mother of two, had planned to take followers out to the desert to await an earthquake or another apocalyptic event. One of the followers forewarned family members and the trip was aborted. That follower was subsequently ostracized.
When authorities finally found Chicas and her followers twenty-two hours after their disappearance, they were "comfortably gathered at a Palmdale area park" - adults were praying, children were playing on swings.
But when Chicas was brought in for questioning, they found her rambling and disorganized, giving a false name and stating she had no children. Her two children, a son, 15 and a daughter, 12, were taken into protective custody. Chicas was placed in 72 hour mandatory hold in a mental hospital, deemed unable to care for herself or others.
I'm trying to piece this story together. Chicas was described by a former friend as "simple - a doting mother who always had her children in tow." Friends said she was "not professional, not prepared," as if all cult leaders had to be slick snake oil salesmen. Not your typical cult leader, if there is one. Fifth grade education, four years divorced, increasingly religious, delusional and disorganized. Psychotic perhaps. Perhaps?!? She denied her own children. Prayed for God to take them to see their deceased relatives. Now THAT sounds like a cult leader.
Of course, one worries about the children and the letters they wrote, convinced that their mother was speaking for God and she was right. Are they with Daddy now? Or is Daddy the devil? Perhaps they're with well-meaning strangers who will try to convince them that Mama was crackers and they deserve to live a full life, that God, in fact, WANTS them to live a full life here on earth and do His work here until He decides to call them back home.
Wherever they are, and the other six children, from ages three to seventeen, my heart goes out to them. I'm glad the State caught up with Chicas, whom I think I can rightly dub a cult leader. She was a suicidal fanatic as well. But how are you going to convince the children of that? The children who love her and call her Mama. On the surface, everything looks harmless enough- playing in the park and praying. But anyone who's been in a cult knows that surfaces lie.
Still, I have hope for these children, as long as knowledgeable professionals are involved. They must be aware of Parental Alienation Syndrome in which one parent (ie a fanatical cultist) brainwashes the child against a noncustodial parent. Children can be brainwashed to be convinced that the whole society is evil and against them. Whole religions brainwash their children of this, but I'm getting off the point.
All I want to say is that I hope the lawyers and doctors and social workers and ministers, and especially the father, if he's still around, will continue to take these signs seriously. I hope that they will NOT FORGET the farewell letters these children wrote, even when they say they were "only kidding." If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it must be a duck.