The deputy was driving through a remote area of Joshua Tree when he made a startling discovery: Three children on a property littered with mounds of trash and several holes filled with feces.
Authorities found that the siblings, ages 11, 13 and 14, had been living on the property with their parents for four years in of a makeshift plywood shelter, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said.
There was no electricity or running water. No bathrooms or heating. Between 30 and 40 cats roamed around the squalid desert property and inside a nearby travel trailer.
On Wednesday, the children’s parents, Mona Kirk, 51, and Daniel Panico, 73, were arrested on suspicion of willful cruelty to child, the Sheriff’s Department said.
Authorities initially reported that the children were living “in a box,” but Capt. Trevis Newport of the Sheriff’s Morongo Basin Station later clarified that the children were not being held captive in a confined space like the Turpin children in Perris.
“They’re homeless,” Newport said of the Joshua Tree family. “It’s a shelter, the shape of a box … nowhere near what it sounded like when it came out.”
Authorities released photos of the property that show a structure authorities described as about 20 feet long, 10 feet wide and 4 feet high.
A plastic tarp appeared to be draped over the roof, taped onto a wall of plywood. Toys and bicycles, along with furniture, containers and other debris, were strewn across the dirt.
“This time of year, it’s very cold at night,” said Cindy Bachman, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department. “When that wind blows, it is freezing.… These kids are living in a shelter made of wood and tarp and it’s 20 to 30 degrees at night.”
The Sheriff’s Department said the children did not have enough food and were living in an “unsuitable and unsafe” environment. But investigators don’t believe they were malnourished, Newport said.
“It’s just tragic that these children were being raised in conditions like this,” Bachman said. “There are services available to help these folks, and clearly they chose not to ask for any help.”
The children are not enrolled in public schools, and it’s unclear whether they were being home-schooled. Officials with the county’s Children and Family Services took custody of the three children, who Newport said were in “good spirits.”
“When it comes to raising children, we have a standard we have to live by,” Newport said. “In this case, we decided, let’s pull the kids from the residence, we don’t want them living in that environment.”
Kirk and Panico were booked into the Morongo Basin Station jail and are each being held in lieu of $100,000 bail.
In the Perris case, prosecutors say David and Louise Turpin inflicted severe abuse and torture on their 13 children, who range in age from 2 to 29.
The parents allegedly punished their children by beating and choking them, tying them to beds for weeks or months at a time, depriving them of food, and forcing them to stay up all night and sleep during the day.
They had been abused and neglected for years in ways so extreme that the siblings are severely malnourished and some show signs of cognitive impairment and nerve damage, prosecutors said.
Authorities learned of the alleged situation after a 17-year-old girl called 911, saying she had escaped through a window from her parents’ house, where she and her siblings had been trapped.
After they were rescued, the children were taken to hospitals for treatment and evaluation.
Anyone with information on the Joshua Tree case is asked to call San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department Morongo Basin Station at (760) 366-4175.