PERRIS, Calif. — 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.
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 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,” Ripley told The Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. “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.”
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 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,” Riverside County Sheriff’s Capt. Greg Fellows said Tuesday.
“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 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 greying 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 70 miles (113 kilometres) 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 enrolment 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.
Mark Uffer, CEO at Corona Regional Medical Center, said seven of the couple’s children were there Tuesday.
The children are “very friendly,” he said. “They’re very co-operative, and I believe that they’re hopeful that life will get better for them after this event.”
Dr. Donald Kirby, director of the Center for Human Nutrition at Ohio’s Cleveland Clinic, said those pale complexions could reflect not only lack of sunshine but also iron deficiencies caused by insufficient vitamins.
He said the siblings’ small stature and childlike appearance also indicates they were likely undernourished for many years.
“What that means is this has been a very long process and that during the real growth spurt years that the needed nutrients weren’t given,” Kirby said. “At some point the body locks in and you’re not able to grow anymore. This didn’t happen last week, last month or even last year. This has been going on probably a very long time.”
He said their recovery period, both physically and emotionally, will likely be long and arduous.
“Lots of things are going to need to be done for these poor people,” he said.
Rogers reported from Los Angeles. Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo, John Rogers, John Antczak, Christopher Weber and Andrew Dalton contributed to this report.
Amy Taxin And Amanda Lee Myers, The Associated Press