PERRIES, CALIFORNIA (REUTERS, AFP, NYTIMES) - A California couple has been charged with torture after police rescued their 13 malnourished children from a home where some of them had been chained to beds, and neighbours on Monday (Jan 15) described the family as shut-ins who shunned social contact.
Police made the discovery after a 17-year-old girl escaped the house in Perris, about 113km east of Los Angeles, and used a cellular phone she had found in the house to call them, the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office said on Monday.
“Deputies located what they believed to be 12 children inside the house, but were shocked to discover that seven of them were actually adults,” police said in a statement.
“The victims appeared to be malnourished and very dirty.”
The children are aged two to 29, police said.
The girl, who officers had initially thought was about 10 years old, contacted police on Sunday after escaping the one-story house.
The parents, David Allen Turpin, 57, and Louise Anna Turpin, 49, were arrested and each charged with nine counts of torture and 10 counts of child endangerment.
They were ordered held on US$9 million (S$12 million) bail each.
Neighbours said the Turpins and their children rarely emerged from their unkempt home in the new built development of closely spaced single-family houses.
Wendy Martinez, a 41-year-old housewife, said her only contact with the Turpins came as she passed the house at night in October.
Four children were installing sod in the yard while the mother watched from the door, and none responded when Martinez said hello.
“They were very, like, afraid,” she said of the children. “Like they had never seen people before.”
Police said six of the couple’s children were minors, while the other seven were over 18.
The siblings told officers that they were starving and police did not give the parents’ motive for holding the children captive.
The Spanish-style stucco house where the victims were allegedly held is located in a middle class neighbourhood of Perris, a small city some 110 km southeast of Los Angeles.
The home boasted three cars as well as a van with tinted windows. One of the cars, a blue compact, had a child’s seat in the back. There are indications that the children were allowed outside the house in recent years.
A Facebook page under the name of David-Louise Turpin includes pictures of the couple attending various marriage or exchange of vows ceremonies from 2011 to 2016 with their children present.
In the latest set, uploaded in April-July 2016, Louise Turpin wears a long white wedding gown while her husband is dressed in a suit. An Elvis Presley impersonator holds a microphone and poses with the couple and children in a scene reminiscent of a Las Vegas wedding.
Nine girls, all with long dark hair, wear matching fuchsia dresses with white tights, while a baby girl is dressed in a bright pink dress.
Three boys, their dark hair in bowl cuts like David Turpin, are dressed in suits with red ties.
An April 2016 photograph shows the same smiling children and the couple wearing jeans and red t-shirts that read “Thing 1,” "Thing 2,” "Thing 3” and so on – a take on the mischievous siblings in the popular Dr Seuss book “The Cat in the Hat”.
Some of the children look gaunt, but not obviously so.
In another September 2015 photograph, Louise Turpin lies holds a baby wearing T-shirt reading “Mommy loves me.”
On a family photo of the parents and 12 children (the youngest had not yet been born) posted on their Facebook page in 2011, a friend asked if all the children pictured were theirs.
“Yes all 12 are our children and we are very proud of them,” the Turpins replied.
Neighbour Kimberly Milligan told the Los Angeles Times that the children were very pale and never played outside despite being so numerous.
“I thought the kids were homeschooled... You know something is off, but you don’t want to think bad of people,” she said.
The neighbour recalled once seeing the pre-teenaged children hanging up Christmas lights at the home about two years ago, and said hello.
“They looked at us like a child who wants to make themselves invisible,” Milligan said, adding she felt guilty that the alleged cruelty went unnoticed.
“How did no one see anything?” she asked.
Another neighbour, Julio Reyes, told New York Times:“They look pretty normal. Pretty normal house, they have nice cars. It’s just an appearance.”
Perris is one of the largest cities in Riverside County, which became an emblem of bankruptcy and foreclosure during the depths of the recent recession.
Known as the Inland Empire, the region has rebounded in recent years.
COUPLE FILED FOR BANKRUPTCY
California state records list David Turpin as the principal of the Sandcastle Day School, with its address at the Turpin house.
The school, which opened in March 2011, only has six students – one each in fifth, sixth, eighth, ninth, tenth and twelfth grade, meaning for children aged about 10-18 – according to the latest state education department data.
Records show the Turpins filed for bankruptcy the same year the school was opened, stating in court documents that they had accrued between US$100,000 and US$500,000 in debt, The New York Times reported.
It said David Turpin at the time worked as an engineer for defence contractor Northrop Grumman, earning US$140,000 a year, while his wife was listed as a homemaker.
Their bankruptcy lawyer, Ivan Trahan, said in a phone interview Monday night that the parents spoke often about their children.
They had 12 at the time of their bankruptcy, Trahan said, adding that the children never visited his law office.
“They spoke about them highly,” Trahan said.
He said Louise Turpin told him the family loved Disneyland in Southern California and visited often.
The Turpins are due in court on Thursday.