More than 20 years before David and Louise Turpin were accused this year of torturing and abusing their kids in a California house of horrors, the children’s aunt says she witnessed the seeds of the parents’ controlling behavior.
Louise’s younger sister, Elizabeth Flores, was 20 in the summer of 1996 when she briefly moved in with the couple and their young family in Forth Worth, Texas, she tells PEOPLE in this week’s issue.
Although she saw no signs of physical abuse, she remembers being puzzled by some of her sister’s rules: For example, the children had to ask for permission to use the bathroom, weren’t allowed to talk to Flores if their mother wasn’t present, and were made to stand at the table and wait to be invited to sit and eat.
“I would ask if I could play with them, and she would tell me no and shut them in their rooms,” says Flores. “She said it was to protect them from me, that she didn’t want ‘my ways rubbing off on them.’”
“I felt bad because I thought they were being held hostage because of me,” she says.
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Authorities have revealed no motive for the alleged abuse they encountered inside the Turpin’s Perris, California, home on Jan. 14, after receiving a 911 call from the couple’s then-17-year-old daughter, who escaped through a window.
But after hearing the girl say that she and her 12 siblings — then ages 2 to 29 — had been held captive and subject to starvation and beatings by their parents, prosecutors charged Louise, 49, and David, 56, with 12 counts of torture, seven counts of abuse of a dependent adult, six counts of child abuse and 12 counts of false imprisonment. (Both have pleaded not guilty.)
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The claims were a “shock” to Flores, who now has written a book, Sisters of Secrets, out May 8. She recalls the turbulent youth she and her sister shared growing up in Princeton, West Virginia, her sister’s evolution after she married at 16 and moved away, and Flores’ response to the startling allegations involving her nieces and nephews.
“She used to always tell everybody she was going to have 12 kids,” Flores says of her sister. “She said that before she even met David.”
“I’ve never seen David and Louise be mean to them,” adds Flores, now a mother of seven herself with her husband Jonathan. “They did have weird strict rules, but as far as them laying a hand on them, I’ve never seen them hurt them physically, ever.”
But looking back as a parent, Flores says she is struck now by the lack of affection displayed by Louise and David to their children.
“The whole time I lived with them, I never once saw them kiss when Louise and David walked through the door or anything,” she says. “I never once saw them run up to them and say ‘Daddy!’ and jump in his arms. Never once saw them react to Louise in that way. Never once saw David and Louise just sit and hold them. Never once saw them read them a book, never once saw them tuck them in bed. Never once saw them rock the baby to sleep.”
Observing the children at mealtimes — when they were never seconds and never requested them — also now registers in hindsight as a red flag because their behavior was totally at odds with how Flores’ own children acted while growing up.
“I wondered before I got there, what went on, did she already have them trained?” Flores says of Louise. “You know, were there signs there that I didn’t see? Should I feel guilty?”
But the firm rules were not limited to the kids. Flores says she was not allowed to have friends during the months she lived with the Turpins. “Louise was a very private person,” she says. “She didn’t want me to have friends while I lived there, because she didn’t allow her kids to have friends. I just thought they were very strict.”
“It’s just hard to fathom,” Flores says of the allegation. “You don’t want to believe that your sister would torture anybody.”