Girl's escape exposes horror of 13 siblings kept captive

2018-01-17 19:18
The exterior of the house in the American state of California where police arrested a couple accused of holding their children captive. (Alex Gallardo, AP)

The exterior of the house in the American state of California where police arrested a couple accused of holding their children captive. (Alex Gallardo, AP)

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Perris - A 17-year-old girl who looked closer to 10 jumped out a window, called 911 and showed the world the strange and secret horror she and her 12 brothers and sisters had been living through.

Her parents had made their suburban Southern California home a private school, a prison, and a veritable torture chamber for the siblings aged 2 to 29, authorities said.

And until the girl fled with photographic evidence, it appears no one, neither neighbours nor public officials, knew anything about what was happening inside.

Court appearance

Deputies said some siblings were shackled to furniture in the filthy, foul-smelling conditions. They were so malnourished the older ones still looked like children.

Few details have been released about how the parents kept them captive despite what appeared to be opportunities for them to leave.

The parents, 49-year-old Louise Anna Turpin and 57-year-old David Allen Turpin, were jailed on $9 million bail. Charges that may include torture and child endangerment could come later on Wednesday and a court appearance is scheduled for Thursday, authorities said.

In one of many surreal details that emerged as the investigation grew, it appears that an Elvis impersonator who performs weddings in Las Vegas is one of the few people who had direct dealings with the clan and he saw a different side.

"It's very disturbing because I felt like I did know them," said Kent Ripley, the Elvis impersonator who led the parents through at least three vow renewal ceremonies in recent years, most recently on Halloween, 2015.

He looked back at YouTube videos of the ceremonies after hearing the news, including two that show all the children dancing and smiling, with matching outfits and similar haircuts.

"Watching them now it's kind of haunting and disturbing," said Ripley. 

"They all looked young and thin but I figured it was just their lifestyle. Maybe the activities they did, maybe because of their religious beliefs. I didn't get that in depth with them but I knew they were a fun family".

Strict existence

Numerous photos on the couple's Facebook page show the children dancing at the Elvis Chapel, visiting an amusement park that appears to be Disneyland and going on other outings, always looking thin but often smiling.

It was a normal public face the family put on that included the ordinary outward appearance of their house, one of many brown-and-beige homes that lined a residential street. Four vehicles were parked in their driveway on Tuesday, with a horde of international media surrounding the house.

Neighbours, just a few steps away in either direction, said the family kept to themselves and never so much as waved. No calls about trouble ever came to police or child welfare officials.

But inside it was a stinking mess, the conditions "horrific," said Riverside County Sheriff's Captain Greg Fellows.

"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," Fellows said.

He said there was no indication any of the children were sexually abused, although that was still being investigated.

The children's aunt, Teresa Robinette, said her nieces and nephews lived a strict existence.

"They weren't allowed to date. They didn't have a social life. They weren't allowed to watch TV. They weren't allowed to have friends over - the normal things that kids do," Robinette said on the "Today" show on Wednesday.

Younger children

The couple, married 32 years, sometimes dressed their children alike in pink dresses or Dr Seuss T-shirts, kept them away from outsiders and cut the boys' hair in a Prince Valiant-style resembling that of their graying father. Photos show nearly all the girls with shoulder-length brown hair parted in the middle.

The couple moved to Southern California from the Dallas area in 2011 and bought the home in 2014 in the rapidly growing city of Perris 113km southeast of Los Angeles with their 12 children. They lived there quietly for at least three years and had another baby.

At that time, Turpin worked as an engineer at the Northrop Grumman aerospace company and earned $140 000 annually and his wife was a homemaker, records showed.

Their house doubles as the Sandcastle Day School, where David Turpin is listed as principal and its enrollment of six includes only the couple's younger children, Fellows said.

No state agency regulates or oversees private schools in California and they are not licensed by the state Education Department.


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