RIVERSIDE (California) • The 13 siblings imprisoned for years by their parents in their squalid California home were beaten, shackled, starved and even taunted with food that they were forbidden to eat, a prosecutor has said.
The victims, aged two to 29, were severely malnourished, suffering from muscle wasting and stunted growth. Several had cognitive impairment and nerve damage from extreme and prolonged physical abuse, the prosecutor said.
Each parent faces 94 years to life in prison if convicted on more than two dozen charges including torture, child abuse and false imprisonment in a case that has shocked the nation and prompted calls for greater supervision of home schooling.
The father, David Turpin, 57, is also accused of sexually abusing one of his young daughters.
He and his wife Louise, 49, sat without speaking, dressed in dark clothes during their initial court appearance on Thursday.
The husband hunched over the defence table with his hands in his lap. Defence attorneys entered "not guilty" pleas to all the charges.
At a news conference before the proceeding, Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin described what he said was a case of "human depravity".
A tortured existence
Officials in California have revealed more details about the horrific conditions faced by 13 children who were held captive by their parents for years. These are the extreme conditions the 13 children, aged two to 29, had to endure:
SHACKLED WITH ROPES AND CHAINS
The children were often tied to their beds for "weeks or even months at a time", authorities said. When they were not shackled to their beds, the children were locked in separate rooms.
SHOWER ONLY ONCE A YEAR
The children were allowed to shower only once a year, but were reportedly able to wash their hands. However, if they were found to have washed their hands above the wrist area, they would be accused of "playing in the water" - an "offence" that would attract punishment.
THEY ATE VERY LITTLE AND WERE FED ON A SCHEDULE
Over the years, the children ate "very little on a schedule", authorities said, while their parents would buy food for themselves and put the items out to tempt them. Only the youngest child, a two-year-old, reportedly had enough to eat. The others were found severely malnourished with cognitive impairment as a result of the neglect. A 29-year-old reportedly weighed just 37 kg.
THEY HAVE NEVER VISITED A DENTIST
None of children has ever seen a dentist. They have also not been treated by a doctor for over four years. A 17-year-old, when questioned by the police, said that she did not even know what medication or pills were.
THEY KNEW NOTHING ABOUT THE OUTSIDE WORLD
The children were home-schooled and adhered to a strict, nocturnal schedule, going to bed only at 4am or 5am. This minimised their contact with others. They were not allowed to play with toys, and were only able to write in journals while they were kept isolated from each other.
The siblings were denied food, basic hygiene and medical care and were punished for perceived infractions such as washing their hands above the wrist.
They had not been to a doctor in at least four years and none has ever visited a dentist, said Mr Hestrin.
He said the victims were chained for weeks or even months at a time, and were not released even to use the bathroom. They were allowed to shower only once a year.
"The parents would apparently buy food for themselves and not allow the children to eat it," he said. "They would buy food, including pies, apple pies, pumpkin pies, leave it on the counter, let the children look at it but not eat the food."
As a result of being malnourished, the 12-year-old child was the weight of an average seven-year-old, while the oldest, a 29-year-old woman, weighed just 37.19kg, said Mr Hestrin.
When the children were not chained up, they were locked in different rooms and were not allowed to have toys, "although there were many toys found in the house that were in their original package and had never been opened".
Sheriff's deputies in Perris, a town south-east of Los Angeles, found that three of the captives had been shackled with chains and padlocks in their filthy, foul-smelling home on Sunday after receiving an emergency assistance call from their teenage sister, who had managed to escape.
Mr Hestrin said the 17-year-old had been working on a plan to escape for more than two years, and took one of her siblings with her, who became frightened and turned back.
The teenager was so emaciated that officers first thought she was a young child.
Officers also initially assumed all the other siblings to be children, but were shocked to discover that seven of them ranged in age from 18 to 29.
All 13 are being treated for malnutrition and undergoing other diagnostic tests.
The father registered the house, where the family lived since 2014, as the private Sandcastle Day School and listed himself as the principal. The children were the only students.
Most states in the US, including California, do not monitor or inspect such schools.
Mr Hestrin suggested that the children's schooling was deficient, as many lacked basic knowledge about such things as police officers and medication.
While the children's ordeal began when the family was living in the Fort Worth region of Texas, it "intensified over time and worsened" when the family moved to California.
"They were fed very little, on a schedule," Mr Hestrin added.
Neither parent was able to immediately explain why their children were restrained, said the Riverside County Sheriff's Department.
There was no indication that either of them suffered from mental illness, said Perris police chief Greg Fellows, or that the children's ordeal was linked to the family's religious beliefs.
Initial investigations have confirmed that the couple are the biological parents of all 13 siblings.
During Thursday's brief court hearing, Judge Michael Donner ordered each defendant to remain held on US$12 million (S$16 million) bail and set the next court date for Feb 23.
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES