The alleged abuse of the Turpin children in a California House of Horrors was exposed one year ago
Editor’s note: One year ago, after a 17-year-old girl crawled out of a window of her Perris, California, home and dialed 911, police learned of the shocking imprisonment and abuse she and her 12 siblings had endured for years — allegedly at the hands of their parents.
The story of the California House of Horrors would shock the nation, and PEOPLE reported on the allegations against parents David and Louise Turpin as the disturbing details unfolded.
Reprinted here is PEOPLE’s cover story from its Feb. 5, 2018 issue. Since its publication, the Turpin siblings — who at the time of their rescue ranged in age from 2 to 29 — have been recovering from years of abuse as they adjust to their newfound freedom.
“They’re not bitter,” Jack Osborn, the attorney for the elder siblings, said on Today on the one-year anniversary of their rescue. “They really take every day as it is, as a gift.”
Early-morning darkness still blanketed the streets of suburban Perris, Calif., on Sunday, Jan. 14, as a window began to creep open at the brown stucco-and-stone house at 160 Muir Woods Road. A 17-year-old girl and her younger sibling slipped out into the yard, armed with a deactivated cell phone—their only hope for salvation. Terrified, the younger child soon turned back home, but the older pressed on, determined to see through a desperate plan she had painstakingly devised with her brothers and sisters for more than two years. At 5:53 a.m. she punched 911 and told the dispatcher that her 12 siblings were being held inside their home against their will and that some of them were chained. When police met up with her, they were shocked at the teen’s thin, frail appearance—and even more shocked when they saw the photos she showed them on the phone. Officers dispatched to her home saw the unspeakable abuse firsthand: Three children had been shackled to beds and furniture, while 10 other victims—ages 2 to 29—were in cramped, foul-smelling rooms. “It was very dirty, and the conditions were horrific,” Riverside County Sheriff’s Department captain Greg Fellows said at a press conference. “If you can imagine being 17 years old and appearing to be a 10-year-old, being chained to a bed, being malnourished … I would call that torture.”
Authorities arrested the siblings’ parents, David Turpin, 56, and his wife, Louise Turpin, 49, and charged them with 12 counts of torture, 7 counts of abuse of a dependent adult, 6 counts of child abuse and 12 counts of false imprisonment. (Authorities say the 2-year-old appears to have escaped abuse.) David was also charged with one count of a lewd act against a child. Both have pleaded not guilty to all charges, and they are being held on $12 million bond each—$1 million for every victim.
While the investigation is ongoing, authorities have released some details of the hell the Turpin children survived. Often shackled, strangled and beaten for infractions such as “playing in water” by washing their hands above the wrists, the children were frequently left to lie in their own waste, unable to use a toilet while chained, and were allowed only one shower per year. Deprived of food, they were taunted by their parents with apple and pumpkin pies they could see and smell but never eat and brand-new toys in unopened packages scattered around the putrid home.
To keep the alleged abuse hidden, the family slept all day and awoke at night, with some neighbors saying they could see the children marching on the second floor of their home in the middle of the night. David, an engineer, and Louise, who did not work outside the home, set up the Sandcastle Day School in their home, registering it as a private K-12 school with the California Department of Education, so the children rarely had to leave the house.
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Neighbors say they are stunned with each new revelation, wondering how they could have missed the evil taking place on their quiet street. “They were a little odd, but I didn’t see anything to call authorities for,” says neighbor Wendy Martinez, 41. When neighbor Kimberly Milligan, 50, and her son saw three Turpin kids putting up Christmas decorations in 2015, they were taken aback by the interaction. “We said, ‘Oh, the decorations look so nice,’ and they froze. Like when young children want to divert a threat, they think they can pretend to be invisible. We caught instantly that we were scaring them. That was the last time the family put out Christmas lights.”
Neighbor Glenn Valdez says that many on the block were unaware how many people lived in the house: “I thought there were only three girls and one boy; that’s all I saw.” Another neighbor tells People that she noticed a couple of things missing from the Turpin family routine. “I never saw them get a ton of groceries and bring them in,” she says. “With 13 kids, I never saw one person visit. To me that is weird.”
The questions remain: How were the Turpins able to control their children so absolutely, especially when the oldest victims were in their 20s and at least one son was even enrolled in college? The answers, like much about the couple’s backgrounds, are shrouded in mystery. Louise was just 16 when she left her West Virginia home and crossed the state line to Virginia to marry David, whom she had met at church and who was seven years her senior. David, who had been a member of the Bible club in high school, was quiet and withdrawn and seldom warmed up to new people. “I never knew him to get in trouble,” says onetime classmate Michael Gilbert. “He was a homebody.” As their family grew, the Turpins moved frequently, living in Texas and California and gradually distancing themselves from Louise’s family, says her half brother Billy Lambert, 30.
Louise even skipped their mother’s funeral in 2016. “She said she had a bad feeling about coming,” says Lambert. Of the last conversations he had with her, he says, “She said she was busy with homeschooling, and she and David were looking into buying a school bus because their 15-seat van wouldn’t fit the 14th baby they wanted.” Now he’s only filled with horror. “It was more than just a shock,” he says of his family’s reaction to the alleged abuse. “It was devastating to us.”
When the Turpins lived in Texas, their neighbor Rick Vinyard says, the family kept to themselves. A few years after they moved in, “one of the girls did try to run away,” Vinyard says. “But I was told the police returned her.” When the family moved out, Vinyard went to check out the property and was disgusted by what he says he saw. “There were dirty diapers piled waist-high,” he says. “We found a dead dog and a dead cat inside. There were padlocks on everything—the closets, the bathrooms, the refrigerator. There were ropes tied to the bed.” Knowing what he does now about the accusations against the Turpins, “I feel like s— about it,” he says. “If I knew what they were doing to those kids, I’d be calling the police on them 10 times a day.”
Authorities say that the Turpins’ abuse of the children increased when the family moved to California in 2010. When one son went to college, “Louise Turpin would accompany him,” says Riverside County district attorney Mike Hestrin. “She would wait outside the class for him and then take him out.” Still, to observers who saw the family on public outings to Disneyland and to Las Vegas, where Louise and David renewed their vows in 2011, 2013 and 2015, nothing seemed amiss. “The kids were very quiet but spoke when spoken to,” says Kent Ripley, the Elvis impersonator who officiated at the couple’s vow-renewal ceremonies. “I am sickened by what’s happened; it’s sad and disturbing.”
Answers about what was really going on inside the Turpin house may be revealed in the hundreds of journals that were written by the children, who were not allowed to watch television or have contact with the outside world. “The victimization of these kids seemed to intensify over time,” says Hestrin, who says additional charges against the Turpins could be forthcoming.
As the case moves forward, the victims face a long road of recovery and rehabilitation. Although none of their injuries are life-threatening, the siblings are currently being treated at local hospitals where they watch videos together while receiving care from doctors, dietitians and counselors. Authorities says it’s too soon to say what will happen to them when they are released from the hospital, but the hope is that they can stay together. “You can tell that they are a family and that they really care about each other,” says Corona Regional Medical Center CEO Mark Uffer. “They’re just looking to move on with their lives and get better.”