Perris, California: Thirteen malnourished siblings found confined by their parents in a suburban California home — three of them chained to the furniture — face a difficult road to recovery, police said Tuesday, as investigators struggled to piece together what fuelled the shocking abuse.
David Allen Turpin, 57 and his wife Louise Anna Turpin, 49, were arrested on suspicion of torture after investigators on Sunday discovered the grim conditions in which they had been keeping their children, ages 2 to 29.
Sheriff’s deputies in Perris, a small city southeast of Los Angeles, found three children shackled with chains and padlocks in their filthy, foul-smelling home after receiving a 911 call for help from their 17-year-old sister who managed to escape.
She was so emaciated that officers first thought she was a young child.
“If you can imagine being 17 years old and appearing to be a 10-year-old, being chained to a bed, being malnourished, and injuries associated with that, I would call that torture,” Perris police chief Greg Fellows told a news conference.
Officers also initially assumed all the other siblings to be children, but were “shocked” to discover seven were actually adults, ranging in age from 18 to 29.
Taken to area hospitals, all 13 were being treated for malnutrition and undergoing other diagnostic tests.
“The long-term needs of these kids are going to be the psychological and psychiatric needs due to the prolonged periods of starvation and maltreatment,” said Sophia Grant, medical director of the child abuse unit at Riverside University Health System.
Mark Uffer, chief executive officer at the Corona regional medical centre where the adults were being treated, described their condition as “stable.”
“They’re comfortable, and they’re in a very safe and secure environment,” he said.
“They’ve gone through a very traumatic ordeal. I can tell you that they’re very friendly. They’re very cooperative, and I believe that they’re hopeful that life will get better for them after this event.”
Middle class neighbourhood
Booked on suspicion of torture and child endangerment, the parents’ bail was set at $9 million each.
Neither was able to immediately explain why their children were restrained, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
Police said there was no initial indication of sexual abuse, but cautioned that the investigation was still ongoing.
There was no indication that either suspect suffered from mental illness, Fellows said, or that the children’s ordeal was in any way linked to the family’s religious beliefs.
Initial investigations have confirmed that the couple were the biological parents of all 13 siblings, Fellows said.
According to police, the family moved in 2014 from Texas to a middle class neighbourhood of Perris, some 110 kilometres southeast of Los Angeles, homeschooling their children in their Spanish-style stucco house.
“They looked vampire pale and very skinny,” one neighbour, Kimberly Milligan, said of the few children she had seen. “They never had friends or family over.”
“A lot of things were strange, but not enough to call the police,” she added.
Nine matching dresses
Fellows said police were aware of social media posts depicting the family together, outside their home, and were unable to explain how those photos showing a seemingly happy family related to the sordid scene discovered in their home.
A Facebook page under the name of David-Louise Turpin — still visible Tuesday — includes pictures of the couple renewing their wedding vows, from 2011 to 2016, with the children present.
In the latest set, uploaded in April-July 2016, an Elvis Presley impersonator holds a microphone and poses with the family — a scene reminiscent of a Las Vegas wedding.
Nine girls, all with long dark hair, wear matching fuchsia plaid dresses with white tights, while a baby girl is dressed in bright pink.
Three boys, their dark hair in bowl cuts like David Turpin, are dressed in suits with fuchsia 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 reference to the mischievous twins in the popular Dr Seuss book “The Cat in the Hat.”
In another September 2015 photograph, Louise Turpin holds a baby wearing a t-shirt reading “Mommy loves me.”
Neighbour Jamelia Adams, 39, expressed shock at the case — the latest of several kidnapping horror stories in recent years in the United States.
“It’s just really, really sad,” she told AFP .
“Here’s a beautiful neighbourhood, brand-new housing tract, newer cars in the yard, and here’s some kids from 29 to two that was just held captive and malnourished and filthy. It’s just heartbreaking.”
The Los Angeles Times reported that the couple had gone bankrupt twice, the first time in 2011 when David Turpin was working as an engineer for defence contractor Northrop Grumman, earning $140,000 a year.
“They seemed like very normal people who fell into financial problems,” Ivan Trahan, the lawyer who represented them in that case, told The Los Angeles Times.