Captive children suffered years of abuse, starvation and cruelty by parents, authorities say

The siblings who were discovered this week living captive in a Perris tract home were tortured and abused by their parents for years, living in conditions that only grew more horrific over time as the family moved from Texas to California, prosecutors said Thursday.

David Turpin, 56, and Louise Turpin, 49, whose 13 children ages 2 to 29 were discovered Sunday after one of them escaped and called 911, punished their children by beating and choking them, tied them to beds for weeks or months at a time, deprived them of food and forced them to stay up all night and sleep during the day, said Riverside County Dist. Atty. Mike Hestrin.

They were not allowed to shower more than once a year.

The alleged abuse and neglect started decades ago, when the family lived in Fort Worth, Texas, and only got worse as they moved to Murrieta in 2010 and then to Perris in 2014, Hestrin said in announcing multiple felony charges against the couple.

Their treatment was so extreme, it caused malnutrition, cognitive impairment and nerve damage in the victims, he said.

“This is severe emotional and physical abuse,” Hestrin said. “There’s no way around that. This is depraved conduct.”

Even as the children suffered from lack of food, the district attorney said, the parents would buy food for themselves and leave it out for their children to see. Even as the children were not allowed to play with toys, the couple had numerous unopened toys throughout the house, he said.

Though one child was allowed to attend college classes outside of the home, Louise Turpin accompanied him and waited outside the classroom, the district attorney said.

“When he was finished with class, she would take him home,” Hestrin said.

The charges include, against each of the defendants, 12 counts of torture and 12 counts of false imprisonment, seven counts of abuse of a dependent adult and six counts of child abuse. David Turpin was also charged with one count of a lewd act on a child under the age of 14.

Although there were 13 children, the parents are charged with 12 counts of torture because the 2-year-old was getting enough to eat, Hestrin said.

If convicted, they face up to 94 years in prison.

Thursday afternoon, the couple appeared briefly in Riverside County Superior Court and pleaded not guilty to all of the charges. They wore black blazers provided to them by the public defender’s office and sat separated by their attorneys.

“Our clients are presumed to be innocent, and that’s a very important presumption,” Deputy Public Defender David Macher, who represents David Turpin, told reporters after the hearing.

The couple’s children were discovered early Sunday morning after one of them, a 17-year-old, escaped the home through a window and called police.

She had planned to escape for about two years, prosecutors said, and she initially left the home with a sibling. But that sibling grew frightened and returned home, Hestrin said.

When deputies arrived at the house on Muir Woods Road, three of the children were tied up and it was “extremely dirty,” Riverside County Sheriff’s Capt. Greg Fellows said at a news conference Tuesday. There was a strong, foul stench in the home, he said.

Even so, Louise Turpin seemed surprised to see authorities, Fellows said.

“It seemed that the mother was perplexed as to why we were at the residence,” he said.

Sheriff’s deputies had no prior contact with the Turpins or calls from their house, Fellows said. Police in Murrieta also had no interactions with them, said a spokesman for the agency.

Deputies at first assumed from the children’s frail and malnourished appearances that all of them were minors but later determined that seven of them were adults, according to the Sheriff’s Department.

The children had not seen a doctor in four years, prosecutors said. None of them had ever been to a dentist.

Though the children were supposedly home-schooled, they lack very basic knowledge about life, Hestrin said.

Many of them did not know what a police officer is, and the 17-year-old who escaped did not know what medication or pills are, he said.

Their undernourishment was so severe that the 29-year-old weighed only 82 pounds when deputies arrived, Hestrin said. A 12-year-old victim weighed the same as an average 7-year-old.

Prosecutors believe the neglect began when the couple lived in Fort Worth for several years in the 1990s. At one point during that time, the parents lived apart from their children and dropped off food from time to time, Hestrin said.

The district attorney pleaded with the public for help piecing together what happened when the family lived in Texas.

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

According to public records, the family also appears to have lived in rural communities south of Fort Worth for several years before moving to California.

Two officials in the Texas communities of Rio Vista and Blum, near where the Turpins appear to have lived for a time, said in phone interviews this week that they did not recall the family.

Jeff Sanders, superintendent of Blum Independent School District, said he had no record of the Turpin children ever being enrolled in local schools. And Rio Vista Mayor William “Keith” Hutchison said he did not remember the family and had not come across anyone who did.

“In our area, if someone lives out in the county they might not ever come into our town because there’s not a full-service grocery store or things like that,” Hutchison said. “You may never meet someone or see someone living in our area if they don’t come into town for some specific reason.”

Through their years of isolation and abuse, one thing the children were allowed to do was write in journals, Hestrin said.

Prosecutors have recovered hundreds of those journals and plan to use the details in them as they build their case against the couple.

Times staff writers Sonali Kohli and James Queally contributed to this report.

Twitter: @palomaesquivel

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