The parents of 13 siblings who were allegedly held in captivity in their family's Southern California home were charged Thursday with committing years of torture and abuse that left their children malnourished, undersized and with cognitive impairments.
"Severe, emotional, physical abuse," Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin said in announcing numerous charges against David Allen Turpin, 57, and Louise Anna Turpin, 49. "This is depraved conduct."
Hestrin said the victimization began when the family lived in the Fort Worth area and intensified when they moved to California. The victims range in age from 2 to 29.
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One former Fort Worth neighbor told NBC 5 she remembers every time she saw the Turpin family. It didn't happen often, but it made an impression.
"It seemed like they were always hidden. That was the thing," Priscilla Shields said. "There was a van that they had, and they scurried in and scurried out. I remember one time the garage door was open, going up or coming down and there was a lot of garbage in there. A tremendous amount of garbage, where it was shocking."
Prosecutors filed charges of torture, child abuse, dependent adult abuse and false imprisonment. David Turpin was additionally charged with performing a lewd act on a child under age 14.
The torture and false imprisonment charges do not include the 2-year-old, Hestrin said, adding that apparently the toddler was getting enough to eat.
The district attorney said the children were beaten and chained as punishment. A punishment could be triggered by something like washing hands above the wrist, in which case they would be accused of playing with the water, he said.
A 17-year-old daughter who climbed out a window on Sunday and called 911 on a cellphone had plotted her escape for two years, he said. Another sibling escaped with her but turned back out of fear.
Hestrin said all 13 victims were severely malnourished and as a result some have cognitive impairment and a lack of basic knowledge. He said a 29-year-old female victim weighed 82 pounds.
The victims were not allowed to shower more than once a year, he said.
He described a bizarre situation in which the family slept all day and stayed up all night, going to bed at 4 a.m. He said that may have contributed to why the abuse went undiscovered for so long.
Shields' memories of the family back-up that description.
"You walk by and you think where are they?" Shields said. "There are a lot of kids in that family and kids should be out playing, kids should be going to school."
Shields said the last she knew, the family moved out in the middle of the night, when their Fort Worth home went into foreclosure in 1999. She described seeing paid cleaners clearing out garbage in the home. They told her it had piled up several feet high.
"You think back, what could I have done?" Shields said. "And looking back, I was sensing something."
District Attorney Hestrin went on to describe more details of the alleged abuse.
"None of the victims have seen a doctor in more than four years," he said. "None of the victims have ever seen a dentist."
The children were fed little, on a schedule, but the parents bought food for themselves and did not allow the children to eat it, he said.
The parents would set out pies that their offspring could see but not touch, he said.
"They 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," he said.
The one thing the children were allowed to do was write in journals, and investigators were reviewing hundreds of them to gather evidence, Hestrin said.
The district attorney characterized the siblings as relieved but would not elaborate.
In an interview, grandparents of the children said 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, California.
Betty Turpin told the Southern California News Group on Wednesday that they were still in shock from learning that her son and his wife were arrested.
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, "they 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 yearslong 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, 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.
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."
NBC 5's Alice Barr contributed to this report.