Starved California children rarely seen outside, mother 'perplexed'

David and Louise Turpin are pictured with their 13 children in April 2016.
David and Louise Turpin are pictured with their 13 children in April 2016. Photo: RENEE

Perris, California: The mother of 13 malnourished children and young adults who were held in filthy conditions, some chained to furniture, was "perplexed" when police arrived at the family's Southern California home on Monday, a sheriff's official says.

The deputies had been summoned by a 17-year-old daughter who jumped out a window and called 911.

Riverside County sheriff's Captain Greg Fellows described the reaction of the mother, Louise Anna Turpin, 49, without elaborating. He said he did not know how the father, 57-year-old David Allen Turpin, reacted.

David Allen Turpin and Louise Anna Turpin were charged after their children were found in captivity in California.
David Allen Turpin and Louise Anna Turpin were charged after their children were found in captivity in California.  Photo: Handout

The children, ages two to 29, are all believed to be the Turpins' biological offspring, authorities said.

Fellows said the investigation has so far found no indication of sexual abuse but that the conditions amounted to torture.

"If you can imagine being a 10-year-old and being chained to a bed ... I would call that torture," he said.

The family had lived in Perris since 2014, and deputies had never been to the residence previously for any reason, Fellows said.

Police said the children were starved and rarely left their dishevelled house and, when they did, appeared small and pale and acted strangely, neighbours said.

The Turpins were arrested on Monday and each charged with nine counts of torture and 10 counts of child endangerment after the 17-year-old, emaciated girl escaped the house in Perris, about 115 kilometres east of Los Angeles and called police, the Riverside County Sheriff's Office said.

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Police said they found several of the brothers and sisters "shackled to their beds with chains and padlocks in dark and foul-smelling surroundings."

Officers thought the children were all under 18 because they looked so emaciated.

Kimberly Milligan, 50, who lives across the street from the family, said she only saw the infant in the mother's arms and three other children since she moved in across the street two years ago, describing them as small and pale.

The Turpin home in Perris, California.
The Turpin home in Perris, California. Photo: Google

"Why don't we ever see the kids?" Milligan said she asked herself. "In hindsight, we would have never thought this. But there were red flags. You never don't hear or see nine kids."

Two years ago, while walking around the neighbourhood admiring Christmas lights and decorations, Milligan said she encountered three of the Turpin children and complimented them on the manger with a baby Jesus set up outside the house. She said the children froze, as if by doing so they could become invisible.

"Twenty-year-olds never act like that," she said. "They didn't want to have a social conversation."

Facebook photos appeared to show a normal, happy life with trips to Disneyland and Las Vegas.
Facebook photos appeared to show a normal, happy life with trips to Disneyland and Las Vegas. Photo: supplied

Nicole Gooding, 35, who has lived in the neighbourhood for three years, said the first time she saw the family was two months ago when the mother and children were cleaning up the yard that was full of weeds and overflowing trash cans.

"I had never seen them at all until that day," she said.

The parents, who were scheduled to appear in court this week, are being held on $US9 million ($11.3 million) bail each, police said.

A police statement did not indicate the parents' motives and a police spokesman said he had no further details.

Six of the couple's children are minors, while the other seven are over 18, parents said.

Facebook photos appear to show a normal, happy, family life with trips to Disneyland and several trips to Las Vegas for wedding vow renewal ceremonies.

David and Louise Turpin appeared to have had marriage-renewal ceremonies at least three times, in 2011, 2013 and 2015, at an Elvis Presley-themed chapel in Las Vegas, according to the chapel's YouTube page. One video shows the couple exchanging renewal vows in front of an Elvis impersonator.

Another video showed 10 female children in matching purple plaid dresses walking down the aisle ahead of Louise toward David, who waited at the altar with two male children in suits.

A third male child dressed in a suit appeared later in the video during various dance performances with the Elvis impersonator and the family.

On the California Department of Education website, David Turpin is listed the principal of Sandcastle Day School - a private school operated out of his home.

The school was opened in March 2011, the website says.

In the 2016-17 school year, it had an enrolment of six with one student each in the fifth, sixth, eighth, ninth, 10th and 12th grades.

Louise Turpin is listed in public records as a housewife, with no income.

The couple declared bankruptcy twice. Bankruptcy documents show David Turpin earned more than $US140,000 in 2011, when the records were filed, but that the family's expenses exceeded his take-home pay by more than $US1000 a month, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Ivan Trahan, an attorney who represented the couple in their latest bankruptcy in 2011, told the Los Angeles Times that, during interviews, the couple spoke highly of their children.

"They seemed like very normal people who fell into financial problems," he said.

Trahan said that David Turpin worked as an engineer at Northrop Grumman, an aeronautics and defence technology company, and had a "relatively high" income but had trouble keeping up with his expenses because he had so many children.

David Turpin's parents, James and Betty Turpin, told ABC News they were "surprised and shocked" at the allegations.

They said their grandchildren were home-schooled, and that they had not seen their son and daughter-in-law in several years, although they were in contact by phone.

They said "God called on them" to have as many children as they did (referring to David and Louise).

They also said the children were given "very strict home-schooling," and had to memorise long passages of the Bible. Some of the children were aiming to learn it in its entirety, they said.

When the grandparents last visited the family, four or five years ago, they noticed the children "looked thin", they said, but they seemed like a "happy family".

Reuters, McClatchy