When Riverside County sheriff’s deputies entered the Perris house where a married couple was said to be holding their 13 children captive, they found a horrific scene.
There was a strong, foul smell. The house was filthy. Three young people were chained to pieces of furniture. Children were badly emaciated.
And yet, Riverside County Sheriff’s Capt. Greg Fellows said Tuesday, the children’s mother was surprised to see authorities.
“It seemed that the mother was perplexed as to why we were at the residence,” Fellows said.
Sheriff’s deputies had never received a call from the house or about suspected child abuse, Fellows said at a news conference. A county child protective services official said this was the “first chance we had to intervene.”
Authorities on Tuesday released more details about the nightmarish scene they found at the house on Muir Woods Road and about the conditions of the 13 siblings who appeared to have undergone years of abuse.
An escape through the window
A 17-year-old girl called 911 early Sunday, saying she had escaped from her family’s home, where her parents had been holding her captive, authorities said.
On Tuesday, Fellows, commander of the sheriff’s Perris station, said the girl escaped from a window in the house and called 911 from a deactivated cellphone. She had photos to back up her claims.
Riverside County sheriff’s deputies who found the girl were struck by her small size and emaciated appearance. She looked to be only 10.
When deputies arrived at the house, they found a scene as nightmarish as she had described.
The parents, David Allen Turpin, 56, and Louise Anna Turpin, 49, were arrested on suspicion of torture and child endangerment, and each was being held in lieu of $9-million bail.
The youngest child is 2. Deputies at first assumed from their frail and malnourished appearance that all in the group were minors, but they later determined that seven of them were adults ages 18 to 29, a Sheriff’s Department statement said.
The children are believed to all be the couple’s biological children, Fellows said. County adult and child protective services workers and medical professionals are assessing the siblings, he said.
Fellows said the parents showed “no indication of mental illness at this time.”
He said the children’s recovery would be long and praised the courage of the teenager who called 911.
“If you can imagine, being 17 years old and appearing to be a 10-year-old, being chained to a bed and being malnourished and injuries associated with that — I would call that torture,” he said.
The children were home schooled, and the family had lived in Perris since about 2014, Fellows said.
“I can truly say that I am devastated at this act of cruelty,” Perris Mayor Michael Vargas said, adding that his heart went out to the victims.
“I can’t even begin to imagine the pain and suffering that they have endured.”
'Hopeful that life will get better for them'
Susan von Zabern, director of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, said county children’s services officials are seeking court authorization to care for the siblings, “including the adult children to the extent that that’s necessary.”
Von Zabern said she could not comment on whether there were prior calls from or about the family but said the 911 call received Sunday — which was cross-reported to social workers — was “the first opportunity we had to intervene.”
It is too early to know how long the siblings have been malnourished or subjected to abuse, she said, but “their condition indicates it has been a prolonged period of time.”
Social workers, as is custom, will try to identify relatives who could care for the children, she said. They would “be subject to all kinds of background investigations to make sure they’re suitable and stable.”
Mark Uffer, chief executive of the Corona Regional Medical Center, said seven of the adult children — five females and two males ages 18 to 29 — are patients at his hospital.
“It’s hard to think of them as adults when you first see them because they’re small and their malnutrition,” he said. “They’re stable; they’re being fed.”
Uffer said the siblings are staying in a secured area where they are together. They are being treated with a team of nurses familiar with the case.
“They’re very friendly. They’re very cooperative, and I believe very hopeful that life will get better for them after this event,” he said.”
Uffer said hospital staff were “horrified” by the case and the young people’s conditions.
“I’ve been CEO for a long time,” he said. “I’ve been in healthcare a long time. I’ve never seen this.”
Kimberly Milligan, 50, who lives across the street from the Turpins’ single-story house, said a lot about the family struck her as strange. The children she saw were very pale — an observation several other neighbors made as well. And she often wondered why, if there were so many children in the house, they never came out to play.
“I thought the kids were home-schooled,” she said. “You know something is off, but you don’t want to think bad of people.”
A joint Facebook account that appears to belong to the couple is filled with images of the family on trips to Disneyland -- the children surrounding Mickey Mouse and Eeyore.
Photos from May 2016 depict an apparent marriage vow renewal ceremony between David and Louise, with an Elvis impersonator in a gold suit jacket. Their 13 children surround them, the girls in pink and purple plaid dresses, the boys in black suits. Pictures from 2011 show a similar ceremony with Elvis, without the children.
In all of the photographs, the children are thin and short in stature. It is difficult to tell which ones are adults.
Like many California families who choose to home-school their children, the Turpins registered their home with the state as a private school called Sandcastle Day School.
During the last school year, the school was listed in state records as a private, nonreligious, co-ed institution that first appeared on the state registry in 2010, when the family lived in Murrieta.
There were six students enrolled — one each in the fifth, sixth, eighth, ninth, 10th and 12th grades.
David Turpin, who was listed as the principal, submitted paperwork each year, but the information sought by the California Department of Education — like the address, type of school and enrollment numbers — likely offered authorities scant insight into the home’s horrors.
That annual paperwork is all that California law requires.
Neither the Department of Education nor the local school districts had any legal responsibility to knock on the Turpins’ door, review their curriculum or assess their children’s academic performance. While state law requires private school employees to submit to fingerprinting and background checks, there is no such demand placed on parents teaching their own children.
“We really knew nothing about them,” said Grant Bennett, superintendent of the Perris Union High School District. “If they were on home-school from the beginning, they wouldn’t have even been on our radar.”
According to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, a group that advocates for more active oversight of home-schooled children, California is one of 15 states that asks nothing more of parents other than that they register as a home school. This group includes many western states, such as Montana, Arizona, Utah and Nevada.
Eleven other states don’t require any documentation, including Texas, where the Turpins lived at one point.