As prosecutors brought charges of cruelty and torture against a California couple who had shackled and starved their children for years, they had two goals in mind: Punish the perpetrators and ensure they could never victimize those 13 children in any way again.
On Friday they appeared to prevail on both counts as David and Louise Turpin pleaded guilty to 14 criminal charges in a deal prosecutors say will likely keep them in prison for the rest of their lives. At the same time, it will keep their children from the trauma of having to testify at a criminal trial that until Friday’s guilty pleas was scheduled to begin in September.
“Part of our job is to seek and get justice. But it’s also to protect the victims from further harm,” Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin said after the couple entered their pleas.
Louise Turpin’s face reddened, and she wept during the hearing as her husband remained indifferent.
The couple, scheduled to be sentenced to life in prison on April 13, won’t be eligible for parole for at least 25 years, meaning David Turpin, 57, and his 50-year-old wife are likely to die there.
“The defendants ruined lives, so I think it’s just and fair that the sentence be equivalent to first-degree murder,” Hestrin said.
The couple was arrested in January 2018 after their 17-year-old daughter jumped out a window of their home and called 911.
She pleaded with a dispatcher for help, saying two of her younger sisters and a brother were chained to a bed.
“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.”
Police who arrived at the address in a middle-class section of the city of Perris, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles, found a house of horrors.
The children, ages 2 to 29 at the time, were severely underweight and hadn’t bathed for months. They described being beaten, starved and put in cages.
Two girls had been hastily released from their chains, but a 22-year-old son remained shackled. The brother told police he and his siblings had been suspected of stealing food and being disrespectful.
A nocturnal existence
The family led a nocturnal existence, which kept them largely out of sight from neighbors.
David Turpin had worked as an engineer for Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Louise Turpin was listed as a housewife in a 2011 bankruptcy filing.
Although the parents filed reports with the state that they home-schooled their children, the oldest child only completed the third grade. Some children suffered from severe malnutrition, stunted growth and muscle wasting, including an 11-year-old girl who had arms the size of an infant.
Children were deprived of food and things other kids take for granted, such as toys and games. They were allowed to do little except write in journals, authorities said.
The kids were rarely allowed outside, but they did go out on Halloween and traveled as a family to Disneyland and Las Vegas.
They 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 and have not spoken publicly. Riverside County authorities obtained temporary conservatorship over the adults.
The social services agency tasked with overseeing the younger children declined to comment on their cases.
The seven adult children are all living together, attending school and getting healthy while leading lives similar to their peers, said Jack Osborn, an attorney who represents them. They value their privacy, he said.
“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 guilty pleas could help with the challenges the children face, especially because many abuse survivors struggle with feelings of self-doubt, said Jessica Borelli, a clinical psychologist and professor at University of California, Irvine.
“It is a pretty clear affirmation of how they were mistreated,” Borelli said. “If there is any part of them that needs validation that how they were treated was wrong and was abuse, this is it.”
Although the guilty pleas were important to spare the children from testifying, they will be allowed to speak at the sentencing if they choose, said Hestrin, who was impressed with their resiliency.
“I was very taken by their optimism, by their hope for the 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.”
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