Crime & Justice

'This is depraved conduct': Parents of starved children plead not guilty to torture

Booking photos for David Allen Turpin and Louise Anna Turpin, who were arrested Sunday under suspicion of keeping 13 children locked up in a home in Perris, California.
Booking photos for David Allen Turpin and Louise Anna Turpin, who were arrested Sunday under suspicion of keeping 13 children locked up in a home in Perris, California.
Courtesy Riverside County Sheriff's Department

The parents of 13 malnourished children found in alleged captivity in Southern California have been charged with committing years of torture and abuse and could face up to life in prison.

Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin announced multiple charges against 57-year-old David Allen Turpin and 49-year-old Louise Anna Turpin at a press conference Thursday, including torture, child abuse and false imprisonment. 

David Turpin was charged with one count of a lewd act on a child by force or fear. 

Both husband and wife pleaded not guilty on all counts. Their next court date is scheduled for Feb. 23. Prosecutors will request that bail be set at $13 million per defendant. 

The neglect and abuse first began when the family lived in the Fort Worth area of Texas, where David and Louise lived apart from most of the children for an unspecified amount of time. They moved to California in 2010, living first in Murrieta, before they moved to their home in Perris in 2014. 

"The abuse and severe neglect intensified over time and intensified as they moved to California," Hestrin said. 

Authorities say the situation came to light early Sunday when their 17-year-old daughter climbed out a window of their home, called 911 and showed deputies photos that substantiated her story. 

Prosecutors say she plotted her escape for two years. Hestrin said Thursday that another sibling escaped with her over the weekend but turned back out of fear.

Deputies found three of the children chained to furniture when they entered.

Hestrin said all 13 victims were severely malnourished, and as a result some have cognitive impairment and a lack of basic knowledge of life.

"Many of the children didn't know what a police officer was. The 17-year-old, when asked if there was medication or pills in the home, didn't know what medication or pills were," Hestrin said.

Hestrin said the 29-year-old female victim weighs 82 pounds. They are all in the hospital and have been examined by medical professionals. The victims had not seen a doctor for four years before they were found.

Hestrin said none of the victims were allowed to shower more than once a year.

Their activity was severely limited but they were allowed to write in journals — hundreds of them were recovered from the home and will be combed through for additional evidence. 

"This is severe emotional and physical abuse," Hestrin said. "There's no way around that. This is depraved conduct."

The paternal grandparents of the children say their son's family looked happy and healthy when they last visited California six years ago.

"They were just like any ordinary family," said Betty Turpin, the 81-year-old mother of David Turpin. "And they had such good relationships. I'm not just saying this stuff. These kids, we were amazed. They were 'sweetie' this and 'sweetie' that to each other."

Betty Turpin and her husband James Turpin of Princeton, West Virginia visited her son's family for five days at their previous home in Murrieta.

Betty Turpin told the Southern California News Group on Wednesday that they are still in shock from learning that her son and his wife were arrested this week, their children, ages 2 to 29, found malnourished with some in shackles.

Betty Turpin said her son told her he had so many kids because God wanted him to. She said her son shared her Pentecostal Christian faith but he wasn't affiliated with a church in California.

"I feel they were model Christians," she said. "It's hard to believe all of this. Over the years, the Lord knows what happened."

James Turpin said during their visit, "the all looked to me well-adjusted. They weren't skinny or nothing. They were joyous to see us."

He said they were dealing with social workers in attempting to connect with their grandkids, who are hospitalized as they recover from their years-long ordeal.

On Wednesday, authorities searched the couple's current home in Perris, 60 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Investigators removed dozens of boxes, what appeared to be two safes and pieces of a bed frame.

Some siblings were shackled to furniture in the foul-smelling four-bedroom home that looked perfectly normal from the outside.

The Turpins have lived in two Riverside County communities since moving to California in 2011, and police said they were never called to either home, nor were any reports fielded by child protective services.

It's not clear what motivated the Turpins to live a secluded life with their large brood or what went on in the house.

Nor is it clear why the teen girl fled when she did, breaking a silence that had likely lasted years.

Psychiatrists say that even in cases of extreme deprivation, it's common for feelings of helplessness or confusion to lead to staying in place despite opportunities to flee.

"This happens all the time. The number of individuals who would immediately respond to an opportunity where they could get away is very small compared to the number of people who would have that paralysis and insecurity and confusion about what to do," said Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist and senior fellow at The ChildTrauma Academy in Houston.

The vulnerable girl might have been shamed, beaten or threatened with violence and only after many missed opportunities did she probably work up the courage to act, Perry said.

"It's pretty remarkable that she'd do that," he said. "The power that must have been exerted to keep an entire family like that for so long must have been pretty sophisticated."

Associated Press writers Emily Schmall in Rio Vista, Texas, and Andrew Dalton in Los Angeles contributed to this report. 

This story has been updated.