DA decries 'human depravity,' says kids chained, beaten, starved for months
District Attorney Michael Hestrin speaks on charges against David and Louise Turpin, who are accused of abusing 13 children, in January 2018.
RIVERSIDE, Calif. — The district attorney, laying out the grim case against two parents he said shackled and starved their children for months, didn't hold back: "There are cases that stick with you, they haunt you," prosecutor Michael Hestrin said Thursday. "Sometimes in this business we are faced with human depravity. That is what we are looking at here."
At first, the Turpin children were tied up with rope at their family home, he said. But as they tried to get free, they were hogtied. Living in filth, they were only allowed to shower once a year. They were starved to the point of stunted growth, and their parents taunted them with food, buying apple pies and leaving them on the counter uneaten.
Beaten, choked and chained up for months at a time, the children began devising a plan to make their escape — two years ago. It wasn't until Sunday that one captive, a 17-year-old daughter, was able to muster the courage to escape through a window. Her 911 call from an inactive cell phone eventually lead authorities to the house of horrors in Perris, where David and Louise Turpin are accused of imprisoning their 13 children.
Hestrin detailed the allegations against the couple at a press conference Thursday. At an afternoon arraignment, the pair was charged with multiple crimes, including torture, that could land them in prison for the rest of their lives. David Turpin also faces one count of committing a lewd act by force or fear, the first indication from authorities that the case may involve sexual abuse. Both have entered not guilty pleas. Their bail was set at $12 million each.
The couple was arrested Sunday after police discovered the children, ranging from age 2 to 29, trapped inside their unassuming house on Muir Woods Road. Police hailed as a hero the daughter who escaped and called 911. They subsequently learned that one of her siblings wanted to go with her, but got scared and ran back to the house.
"She was frightened, that's all I can say," Hestrin said.
David Turpin’s father, James, said from his home in Princeton, W.Va., that he did not believe the reports about the abuse.
“I’m going to talk with the children, find out the real story on this as soon as I can get a call through to them,” James Turpin told The Associated Press.
David Turpin’s lawyer, Deputy Public Defender David Macher, had only begun to investigate the allegations but said the case was going to be a challenge.
“It’s a very serious case,” he said. “Our clients are presumed to be innocent, and that is a very important presumption.”
The district attorney told a packed room of at least 50 reporters and photographers that the children endured years of severe emotional and physical abuse that started when the family was living in Ft. Worth, Texas, and then continued after they moved to Murrieta and then to Perris.
What started out as neglect became severe and prolonged abuse that eventually involved beatings and strangulations, Hestrin said.
The victims, who were supposedly being home-schooled, developed cognitive impairment and nerve damage from the prolonged abuse, Hestrin said, adding they "lack basic knowledge of life." Some didn't know what a police officer or medication was, he said.
In one of many surreal details that emerged in the investigation, the 13 children who were held captive in their home took part of their parents wedding renewal in a Las Vegas chapel with an Elvis Presley impersonator.
He said the victims were forced to sleep during the day and stay up all night. The parents brought new toys to the house, but would not let the children take them out of the box.
The children were so malnourished that their muscles were wasting away. One victim, age 12, had the weight of an average 7-year-old. The 29-year-old daughter weighs just 82 pounds, Hestrin said.
The children also were restricted from using the bathroom. If they got water on their wrists while washing their hands, they were punished for "playing with water."
At one point, in Texas, the parents lived separately from the children, and stopped by occasionally to drop off food.
Hestrin said one of the older males was allowed to take classes at a school, which investigators would not identify, but his mother always waited outside for him.
In other ways, the Turpins appeared to be a normal family. David Turpin worked as an engineer at Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. The family bought their home in Perris in 2014 for $310,000, and the family's Facebook page includes photos posted in 2012 of the parents and the kids, except for the baby, at Disneyland. Other photos show the couple renewing their vows in 2011 at a chapel in Las Vegas as their children smile and appear to be celebrating.
The kids' only entertainment was writing in journals, hundreds of journals, which authorities have recovered and are "combing through for evidence."
“I think those journals are going to be strong evidence of what occurred in that home,” Hestrin said.
Full charges include 12 counts of torture, seven counts of abuse of a dependent adult, six counts of child abuse or neglect, 12 counts of false imprisonment, one count of lewd act against a child by force or fear against David Turpin.
If convicted, the suspects face 94 years to life in prison.
Prosecutors have not filed a torture charge in connection to the youngest victim, a 2-year-old, who appeared to be the only Turpin child fed enough.
The district attorney urged anyone with information about the Turpins and their lives in Texas or California to contact authorities.
“Someone must have seen something. Someone must have noticed something. We need their help,” Hestrin said.
Over the past week, the stunning case has cast a horrifying shadow over Perris’ once-quiet Monument Park neighborhood. Neighbors are grappling over clues that might have helped stop the torture if law enforcement had been told something seemed amiss at the home.
Stories of eccentric behavior among family members emerged as past and current neighbors shared stories about the Turpins, who they described as "odd," "private" and "standoffish."
The family rarely interacted with neighbors while living in communities where residents routinely said hello to each other. The few times anyone actually saw the family was in the middle of the night, when they were spotted working in the yard or being loaded into a van. The siblings dressed alike, had similar haircuts and sounded like "robots" on the few occasions they talked to their neighbors.
No one knew exactly how many siblings existed, nor were their ages clear as most people assumed the oldest children had to be in their early teens.
Just days after the discovery, investigators could only confirm a few details.
Riverside County Sheriff's Capt. Greg Fellows said a "foul smell" lingered through the home, which was described as "extremely dirty." Fellows added that Louise Turpin appeared "perplexed" about why authorities swarmed the home.
Riverside County Department of Public Social Services officials said they never communicated with the family prior to this week and sheriff's officials also said they were never called to the home.
Corona Regional Medical Center CEO Mark Uffer said his staff was "horrified" by the condition of the siblings.
Their conditions have since improved and, Uffer added, they were all doing well and were in good spirits.
The Riverside University Health System foundation launched a support fund for the siblings and officials are requesting monetary and gift card donations.
"We recognize financial gifts will not eliminate their trauma, but these additional resources will be extremely important in helping these victims address their long term educational and physical needs," said Erin Phillips, executive director of the foundation.