In a mountain-ringed development of tile-roofed homes in the Californian city of Perris, a nightmare was unfolding unnoticed – 13 siblings being held captive by their parents David and Louise Turpin, according to police
As Wednesday unfolded, investigators began their work of combing through the filthy, foul-smelling house looking for answers to the central question that has so far baffled authorities: why the Turpins apparently imprisoned their children before being arrested at the weekend, allegedly allowing them to starve and shackling them to furniture.
The tranquil suburban street where the Turpin home sits was clogged with news crews hoping to offer answers, as neighbours grappled with how the apparent imprisonment of siblings – aged two to 29 – could happen amid such normalcy.
A neighbour named Jose Mercado was trying to reconcile the horror – the Perris chief of police called it an act of “torture” – with his experience of a quiet community where the surrounding blocks bustle with hundreds of young trick-or-treaters during Halloween and residents proudly compete over the best Christmas lights display.
“We tend to look after each other here,” he said. “We help each other whenever we can – I think if someone had know anything they would have spoken out."
A light-up paper snowflake could be seen hanging in the window of the Turpin family home, where authorities said the family lived after previously residing in nearby Murrieta, California, and in Texas.
“Comfort and joy,” proclaimed a sign on a house strung with coloured lights across the street from the Turpin home. Neighbours who were ferrying young children to school would not have met the Turpin children there. Authorities said they had been homeschooled, and the state’s education department records show Mr Turpin had received approval to run a private school – Sandcastle Day School – out of his residence.
In a statement, the California Department of Education (CDE) said: “We are sickened by this tragedy and relieved the children are now safe and authorities are investigating. Full-time private schools are required to register with the state to record their students’ exemption from compulsory attendance at public schools. Under California law, the CDE does not have the authority to monitor, inspect or oversee private schools.”
Three houses down from the Turpin residence, a neighbourhood watch sign announced that “We report all suspicious Persons & Activities to Our Law Enforcement Agency”. But nothing at the Turpin home signalled to residents something was amiss or compelled them to call the police – it was not until Sunday, when a 17-year-old daughter escaped from a window and contacted authorities, that help arrived. She and her siblings were so malnourished the adult children were initially believed to be minors.
Authorities are preparing to charge David and Louise Turpin, 57 and 49 respectively, with a number of counts of torture and child endangerment, having arrested them in the raid on Sunday. The pair – held on $9m bail – are set to appear in front of a Riverside County judge on Thursday.
Family members of the couple have also so far offered little insight into what occurred in the Turpin household and any motivation behind it, beyond snippets that suggest a regimented life.
“They weren’t allowed to watch TV. They weren’t allowed to have friends over – the normal things that kids do,” Teresa Robinette, a sister of Louise Turpin, told NBC’s Today show.
Ms Robinette said she had raised concerns about the children’s health, when she did speak to her sister, but they were played down by Mrs Turpin.
“I always made comments to Louise when I did talk to her, about, gosh, they are so skinny,” Ms Robinette said. “She would laugh it off and say David’s so tall and lanky, they are going to be like him.”
Another aunt, Elizabeth Jane Flores, said that she had tried for years to contact her sister, but to no avail. ”I want to reach out to the kids. I want them to know that for years we begged to Skype. We begged to see them, the whole family,” she said.
Ms Flores said that the family had always been private: “When that happens for 20 years, and it was before the kids even were there, you don’t think it’s abnormal.
“If it had been like two years ago that she cut us off, then we might think, wow, something’s not right... They were real private, and they didn’t come around much,” Ms Flores told ABC’s Good Morning America
Ms Robinette said that her family were “as hurt and shocked and angry and disappointed as everybody else” over the details released by the police, but she had a message for the 13 siblings.
“I want them to know they do have family that they love, whether they know us or not,” she said.