RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — A California couple pleaded guilty Friday to torture and years of abuse that included shackling some of their 13 children to beds and starving them to the point it stunted their growth.
David and Louise Turpin will spend at least 25 years in prison after entering the pleas in Riverside County Superior Court to 14 counts that included cruelty toward all but their toddler daughter, and imprisoning them in a house that appeared neatly kept outside, but festered with filth and reeked of human waste.
The couple was arrested in January 2018 when their 17-year-old daughter called 911 after escaping from the family’s home in the city of Perris, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles.
The children, who ranged in age from 2 to 29 at the time, were severely underweight and hadn’t bathed for months. They described being beaten, starved and put in cages.
David Turpin appeared stoic as he pleaded guilty, but Louise Turpin’s face turned red and she began crying and dabbed her eyes with a tissue.
The two face prison terms of 25 years-to-life when they are sentenced April 19, Riverside District Attorney Mike Hestrin said.
“The defendants ruined lives so I think it’s just and fair that the sentence be equivalent to first-degree murder,” Hestrin said.
Hestrin said he was impressed by how resilient the children were when he met with them, though he said the guilty pleas were important to spare them from having to testify at a trial.
The couple had faced dozens of additional counts if they went to trial. During a preliminary hearing, a judge tossed out a single count involving their youngest daughter, finding she was the only child who didn’t suffer abuse.
The Turpins had led a mostly solitary, but seemingly unremarkable life until the teenager jumped from a window and ran for help.
David Turpin, 57, had worked as an engineer for both Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Louise Turpin, 50, was listed as a housewife in a 2011 bankruptcy filing.
The family led a nocturnal existence and slept during the day, which kept them largely out of sight from neighbors in a middle-class subdivision.
In a recording of the 911 call played in court last year, the girl who escaped said two younger sisters and a brother were chained to their beds and she couldn’t take it any longer.
“They will wake up at night and they will start crying and they wanted me to call somebody,” she said in a high-pitched voice. “I wanted to call y’all so y’all can help my sisters.”
The intervention by authorities marked a new start for the children who lived in such isolation that the teen who called for help didn’t know her address and some of her siblings didn’t understand the role of the police when they arrived at the house.
Two girls had been hastily released from their chains when police showed up but a 22-year-old son remained shackled.
The young man said he and his siblings had been suspected of stealing food and being disrespectful, a detective testified. The man said he had been tied up with ropes at first and then, after learning to wriggle free, restrained with increasingly larger chains on and off over six years.
Authorities said the children were deprived of food and things other kids take for granted, such as toys and games, and were allowed to do little except write in journals.
Although the parents filed reports with the state that they home-schooled their children, the oldest child had only completed the third grade and a 12-year-old couldn’t recite the full alphabet.
An investigator testified that some suffered from severe malnutrition and muscle wasting, including an 11-year-old girl who had arms the size of an infant.
The kids, whose names all begin with the letter J, were rarely allowed outside, though they went out on Halloween and traveled as a family to Disneyland and Las Vegas, investigators said. The children spent most of their time locked in their rooms except for limited meals or using the bathroom.
All the children were hospitalized immediately after they were discovered. Riverside County authorities then obtained temporary conservatorship over the adults.
Jack Osborn, an attorney who represents the seven adult children in probate court, said they were happy the guilty plea spared them from testifying.
“They are relieved they can now move forward with their lives and not have the specter of a trial hanging over their heads and all the stress that would have caused,” Osborn said.
The adult children are all living together, attending school and getting healthy while leading lives similar to their peers. He said they value their privacy.
The social services agency tasked with overseeing the younger children declined to comment on their cases, citing confidentiality laws.
Jessica Borelli, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychological science at University of California, Irvine, said children who suffer such trauma face many challenges but she has seen people make miraculous recoveries. The guilty pleas from their parents, she said, could help, especially since many abuse survivors struggle with feelings of self-doubt.
“It is a pretty clear affirmation of how they were mistreated,” she said. “If there is any part of them that needs validation that how they were treated was wrong and was abuse, this is it.”
The degree to which the pleas help will largely depend on the children’s perceptions of their situation, including their sense of justice, said Shefali Gandhi, director of clinical services at Childhelp Children’s Center of Arizona
“The plea is the start of their journey to heal, not the end,” she said.
The children have not spoken publicly, though they will be allowed to speak at the sentencing if they choose to, Hestrin said.
“I was very taken by their optimism, by their hope for the future, for their future,” Hestrin said. “They have a zest for life and huge smiles and I am optimistic for them and I think that’s how they feel about their future.”
Associated Press reporters John Antczak and Brian Melley in Los Angeles contributed to this report.