National News

Teen Used Deactivated Cellphone to Report Family Held Captive in California

Posted January 16, 2018 4:01 p.m. EST
Updated January 16, 2018 4:07 p.m. EST

PERRIS, Calif. — To tell the police the horrific tale of how her parents were holding her and 12 siblings captive, a 17-year-old girl escaped before dawn Sunday through a window in the family’s Southern California home and used a deactivated cellphone to call the only telephone number that still worked: 911.

Why the parents, David Allen Turpin, 57, and Louise Anna Turpin, 49, kept their 13 children locked up — and for how long — remains unknown.

But the few details the authorities revealed Tuesday painted a disturbing portrait of prolonged abuse and neglect for the siblings, seven adults and six children, ages 2 to 29. The police found three of the siblings chained to furniture inside the house. All were malnourished, to the point that the adults were so small they looked much younger.

“I wish I could come to you today with information that would explain why this happened,” Capt. Greg Fellows, a spokesman for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, said Tuesday.

The parents, both arrested on nine counts of torture and child endangerment, remain in jail. When sheriff’s deputies arrived at the house on Sunday, “the mother was perplexed as to why we were at that residence,” Fellows said.

Sheriff’s deputies had never before been called to the house in Perris, an exurb about 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles, since the Turpin family moved there in 2014. Neither had the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, said its director, Susan von Zabern. Sunday “was the first opportunity we had to intervene,” she said.

“I don’t think we have enough information to know how long any of the children have been subjected to this,” Von Zabern said. “Their condition indicates it has been a prolonged period of time.”

The agency will seek court authorization to provide oversight and care for the children, including the adults if necessary, she added.

The family previously lived in Murrieta, California, and in Texas, and Fellows said he had no information on whether the family was religious, as their social-media posts indicated.

The state had given Turpin approval to run a private school, the Sandcastle Day School, at home. The only children enrolled were his own, as far as investigators can tell, Fellows said.

For now, the seven adults — five women and two men — have been hospitalized at Corona Regional Medical Center, where they are staying together in a secure area, said Mark Uffer, the hospital’s chief executive. He described their condition as stable.

“They’re very friendly, they’re very cooperative, and I believe that they’re hopeful that life will get better for them,” Uffer said. Asked about the conditions in which the siblings were found, he responded, “I’ve never seen this.”

“The way my staff responded, I think they were horrified.”

Sophia Grant, medical director of the child abuse and neglect unit at Riverside University Health System, said that while she could not speak to specifics regarding the underage siblings, treatment for abuse victims would generally require slow feeding, diagnostic exams like CT scans, and long-term psychological assistance.

“You have to imagine that these kids are going to need a lot of support,” she said. “It’s not going to be anything that you go to a few sessions of therapy, and you’re all better.”

The police described the Turpins’ home as filthy, dark and foul-smelling. News crews were stationed outside on Tuesday, as neighbors continued to wrestle with the idea that so many children were being neglected in the one-story, rusty red house with the tiled roof.

Early Tuesday morning, Kimberly Milligan, 50, who lives across the street, said she had only encountered the Turpins once, when she and her son saw three of the siblings — who they thought were 11 to 14 years old — hanging Christmas lights in 2015.

“We said, ‘Hey, your decorations look really nice.’ And they froze,” she said. “They looked absolutely terrified. They were childlike in the sense that, ‘I’m invisible, you can’t see me.’ That was their only defense mechanism.”

The Milligans tried to reassure the siblings that they were just being friendly, but when their expression did not change, the two backed off. The Christmas lights stayed up until February, she said, and the nativity star in the window remains there to this day. The family’s three Volkswagens remained parked in the driveway on Tuesday, sporting vanity plates that proclaimed the Turpins’ love for Disneyland.

“I can’t begin to imagine the pain and suffering that they have endured,” Mayor Michael Vargas of Perris said of the siblings. “This is a very happy and tight, hardworking family community.”