The young woman who called 911 was 17 years old with the voice of a little girl. She hardly ever ventured outside her parents’ home, she told the dispatcher, and she struggled to understand the difference between a ZIP Code and a street address.
But she was clear about why she had climbed out a window that January morning with a disconnected cellphone and called police.
“My parents are abusive,” she told the dispatcher. “They abuse us and my two little sisters right now are chained up.”
Her sisters, she later added, “will wake up at night and they will start crying and they wanted me to call somebody and tell them.”
On Wednesday, the young woman’s parents, David and Louise Turpin, sat stoically at a defense table in a Riverside County courtroom. Prosecutors played the 911 call at the start of a hearing in which a judge will decide whether there is sufficient evidence for the couple to stand trial on dozens of felony counts related to the alleged abuse, captivity and torture of their 13 children over several years.
The couple were arrested shortly after their daughter’s escape, when deputies responding to the 911 call discovered that she and her 12 siblings appeared to have been living for years in abusive and squalid conditions in a Perris tract home. Three of the siblings had been chained to their beds for weeks, deputies said. The couple have pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The hearing in front of Riverside County Superior Court Judge Bernard Schwartz, which is expected to conclude Thursday, provided a glimpse into horrific conditions that the Turpin siblings described to investigators after they were removed from the home.
For the first time, investigators also offered details about how some of the siblings described the family’s life in Texas, before they moved to California about eight years ago.
One of the siblings, a 25-year-old, told Wade Walsvick, an investigator for the Riverside County district attorney’s office, that the parents largely abandoned their children for about three or four years, leaving them to live in a trailer while the couple lived in an apartment not far away. He and his older sister were left in charge, Walsvick said.
The parents, however, continued communicating with the siblings over the phone and forcing the two older siblings to punish the others, Walsvick said.
Those punishments included locking the children in cages and a dog kennel, Walsvick said the 25-year-old told him.
The young man agreed to inflict the punishments because he was terrified of what his parents would do to him and his siblings if he defied them, Walsvick said.
“I chose to take the correct path and try to keep my siblings alive,” he told the investigator.
When they met with investigators, the siblings knew little about the outside world and struggled even to understand and pronounce basic words. The 17-year-old told deputies that she often slept at least 15 hours a day, sometimes waking up at 11 at night and going to sleep at 3 in the morning.
She often spent 20 hours a day in the room she shared with three of her sisters — and was allowed to leave only to eat, to use the bathroom and to brush her teeth, Riverside County Sheriff’s Deputy Manuel Campos testified.
For exercise, the girl told Campos, she would walk back and forth in her room.
The children referred to their parents as “Mother” and “Father” because “it was more like the Bible days,” Campos said. And when they were caught disobeying rules, they would be chained up and called the devil.
Investigators testified about what they said were numerous instances of abuse inflicted by Louise Turpin, a fact that David Turpin’s attorneys appeared to be zeroing in on during cross-examination.
But Campos also testified that the 17-year-old told him that when she was 12, David Turpin pulled her pants down and put her on his knee even as she told him to stop. She was able to get away from him when they heard Louise Turpin approaching, he said the girl told him. She also told investigators that her father had tried to forcibly kiss her on the mouth numerous times from the age of 12 to about 15, Campos said.
David Turpin has been charged with one count of a lewd act on a child.
Riverside County Sheriff’s Det. Thomas Salisbury also testified that he was told by the Turpin’s 22-year-old son that his father had tied him up with rope as discipline. When the young man was able to use his teeth to escape the ropes, his mother began using a small chain to shackle him. When he was again able to escape, they began using heavier chains, Salisbury said.
“All in all, he had been restrained with chains and ropes off and on for 6 ½ years,” Salisbury said.
Ultimately, it was the chains that pushed the 17-year-old to escape. Her 11- and 14-year-old sisters had been chained to their beds for weeks as discipline for stealing candy, she told investigators.
In December she used the deactivated cellphone to take photographs of her sisters in chains. Prosecutors showed those photos in court Wednesday. They showed two young girls who looked emaciated. Thick chains were wrapped around their wrists. One sat on the bed and another on the floor nearby. There were bruises on their arms.
The girl escaped out a window, taking the cellphone that had been deactivated but was still configured to make emergency calls with her. She called 911 even as her hands shook from fear, she told authorities.