National News

Prosecutor Tells of Grim Life at California Home

Posted January 18, 2018 8:43 p.m. EST

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — She had been physically tortured — chained and deprived of sleep. And she had been psychologically tortured, too — apple pies and unopened toys left out in the open that she and her 12 brothers and sisters were forbidden to touch.

But after many long years of abuse, a stunted teenage girl who had grown up in a household of unimaginable horrors made her escape. She took one of her siblings with her, and made a dash for freedom. It was a plan she had prepared for on the sly for two years. And it almost fell apart, as the sibling who followed behind her got too scared and went back.

On Thursday, after the teenager successfully alerted the authorities to her family’s dark secret, her parents were charged with dozens of counts of torture and abuse. The Riverside County district attorney, Mike Hestrin, revealed the gruesome details in what he said was one of the most horrific cases of “human depravity” of his career.

The teenager grew up cowering in fear, doing exactly what her parents ordered and nothing more, which made her escape all the more remarkable. Dialing 911 on a cellphone she had grabbed from the house, she told the authorities what her parents had done to her and her brothers and sisters. How they beat them, forced them to urinate in their beds and allowed them to bathe only once a year.

The parents, David A. Turpin, 56, and his wife, Louise A. Turpin, 49, pleaded not guilty in court on Thursday afternoon to all charges, including 12 counts of torture, seven counts of abuse of a dependent adult, six counts of child abuse and 12 counts of false imprisonment. David Turpin is also charged with one count of a lewd act against a child.

With disheveled hair and ill-fitting black suits provided by the public defender’s office, they both looked dazed as they sat in the courtroom packed with reporters. Their hands rested in their laps, shackled with a chain around their waists and another around each of their ankles. Bail was set at $12 million each.

Hestrin said that many of the children appear to have cognitive deficiencies and show evidence of nerve damage from “extreme and prolonged physical abuse.” None of the siblings, ages 2 to 29, have seen a doctor in four years and they have never seen a dentist.

Forced to stay up all night and sleep during the day, they were given only a tiny amount of food on a strict schedule, Hestrin said. A 29-year-old daughter weighed just 82 pounds and a 12-year-old sibling was the size of a 7-year-old. The 2-year-old child did not appear to be abused, Hestrin said.

The daughter who escaped did not understand what the officers meant when they asked if there was medication in the home. Many of the children did not know what a police officer was.

“They lack a basic knowledge of life,” Hestrin said.

Hestrin also recounted how the children were allowed to bathe only once a year — if they washed their arms above their wrists, they were accused of “playing in water” and chained to their beds as punishment, Hestrin said.

“The victims were often not released from their chains to go to the bathroom,” he said.

Before Sunday, neither law enforcement nor child protective services had any contact with the Turpin family. The couple hid the abuse in part by registering the residence as a private school, which prevented government officials from ever coming into contact with the children, the authorities said.

But it had been going on for years. Before coming to California, the family lived in Fort Worth, Texas, where, Hestrin said, the parents used rope and “hogtied” the children. When one escaped, they began using chains and padlocks, he said. The most intensive abuse, he said, appeared to be targeting the oldest children, who were also “fed very little on a strict schedule.” There was “frequent beating and even strangulation,” he added.

“What started off as neglect became severe, pervasive, prolonged abuse,” Hestrin said.

He pleaded with anyone who knew the family to contact his office.

“Someone must have seen something, someone must have noticed something,” Hestrin said. “We need your help.”

While several neighbors have said they thought of the family as clannish and reclusive, they were never worried enough to call the police.

Roberto Gomez, 45, who lives in the house behind the Turpins, said Tuesday that the family appeared to leave lights on 24 hours a day and seemed to be more active at night. But neither Gomez nor his son ever saw the people who lived there, which struck them as strange in a neighborhood where families are often outside.

“I thought they were doing something like drugs,” the elder Gomez said. “But I never, ever expected there to be 13 kids back there.”

Kimberly Milligan, who moved to the neighborhood 2 1/2 years ago, said Thursday that she rarely saw the children.

“I would say, are we sure 13 kids live there? Because it just doesn’t make sense,” she said in a phone interview.

One recent night, Milligan said, she and her son were outside, and her son suddenly asked, “What is he doing in the trash can?” It was one of the Turpins’ three sons, she said. She did not think much of it at the time. But now, based on conversations with neighbors who saw similar episodes, she thinks the boy may have been rummaging for food.

David Turpin appeared to be employed and earning a regular income, Hestrin said. He and his wife ate well. The police found several toys scattered through the four-bedroom home, but they were all unopened. The only thing the children were permitted to do was to write in journals — the authorities found hundreds of them in the home.