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Parents of 13 malnourished children 'held captive' plead not guilty to imprisonment and torture

Louise and David Turpin deny charges of torture and imprisonment. Credit: AP

A California couple accused of imprisoning and torturing their 13 children have pleaded not guilty.

David Turpin, 56, and Louise Turpin, 49, starved their children to the point that their growth was stunted, chaining them to their beds for months at a time and forbidding them from showering more than once a year or using the toilet, a prosecutor said on Thursday.

"The victimisation appeared to intensify over time," Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin said in announcing charges. "What started out as neglect became severe, pervasive, prolonged child abuse."

The parents were charged with 12 counts of torture, seven counts of dependent adult abuse, six counts of child abuse, and 12 counts of false imprisonment have been made against the couple.

David Turpin was additionally charged with one count of a lewd act on a child under age 14.

The children, pictured here in 2015, were said to be chained to furniture and starved.

The couple's children range in age from two to 29, but the torture and false imprisonment charges do not include the two-year-old.

Announcing the charges against the couple, Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin, referred to the alleged crimes as "severe, emotional, physical abuse... this is depraved conduct".

Hestrin added that the couple kept their children chained as punishments.

The couple's actions came to the attention of authorities after their 17-year-old daughter climbed out of a window on Sunday and called 911 on a mobile phone.

The teenager said she had been plotting her escape for two years.

Another sibling escaped with her, but turned back out of fear.

When authorities searched the home in Perris, 60 miles south-east of Los Angeles, investigators found some siblings shackled to furniture in the four-bedroom house.

Riverside County District Attorney Mike Hestrin announced the charges against the couple on Thursday. Credit: AP

Hestrin said all 13 victims were severely malnourished and as a result some have cognitive impairment and a lack of basic knowledge.

He said a 29-year-old female victim weighed just under six stone (37kg).

Two well-nourished dogs found at the home were seized by authorities who are making arrangements for them to be adopted.

Perris city spokesman Joe Vargo said the two dogs, one black and one white Maltese mixes, were in "good condition".

Prosecutors claim:

  • The victims were starved and shackled to their beds, sometimes for months at a time.
  • They were beaten and choked.
  • They were not allowed to shower more than once a year.
  • They were often not allowed to use the toilet.
  • They had never visited a dentist and had not received medical treatment or visited a doctor for four years.
  • They were deprived of food but their parents ate well and even tormented the children by putting apple and pumpkin pies on the kitchen counter, but not letting them have any.
  • The children were tied up or beaten if they washed their hands 'above the wrist' because the parents said it amounted to them 'playing with water'.
  • They were not allowed to play with toys, though many were found throughout the house in their original packaging.
  • They knew virtually nothing of the outside world and were schooled at home, rarely allowed out.
  • They would be forced to stay up all night and sleep from dawn, potentially allowing the parents to hide the abuse.
  • The abuse and neglect intensified over a prolonged period of time.
  • One of the only things the children were allowed to do was to write in their journals.
The torture and false imprisonment charges do not include the two-year-old.

Investigators also removed dozens of boxes, what appeared to be two safes and pieces of a bed frame during the searches.

In an interview, grandparents of the children said their son's family looked happy and healthy when they last visited California six years ago.

"They were just like any ordinary family," said Betty Turpin, the 81-year-old mother of David Turpin. "And they had such good relationships. I'm not just saying this stuff. These kids, we were amazed. They were 'sweetie' this and 'sweetie' that to each other."

Betty Turpin and her husband, James Turpin, of Princeton, West Virginia visited her son's family for five days at their previous home in Murrieta, California.

Betty Turpin told the Southern California News Group on Wednesday that they were still in shock from learning that her son and his wife were arrested.

Betty Turpin said her son told her he had so many kids because God wanted him to. She said her son shared her Pentecostal Christian faith but he wasn't affiliated with a church in California.

"I feel they were model Christians," she said. "It's hard to believe all of this. Over the years, the Lord knows what happened."

James Turpin said during their visit, "they all looked to me well-adjusted. They weren't skinny or nothing. They were joyous to see us".

He said they were dealing with social workers in attempting to connect with their grandchildren, who are hospitalised as they recover from their ordeal.

Police said they had never been called to the Turpins' home before and there were no reports fielded by child protective services.