RIVERSIDE, Calif. — A California couple pleaded guilty Friday to torture and years of abuse that included shackling some of their 13 children to beds and starving them to the point they stopped growing.
David and Louise Turpin will spend at least 25 years in prison after entering the pleas in Riverside County Superior Court to 14 counts that included cruelty toward all but their toddler daughter, and imprisoning the children in a house that appeared neatly kept outside, but festered with filth and reeked of human waste.
The couple was arrested in January 2018 after their 17-year-old daughter escaped from the home and called 911 in the city of Perris, about 60 miles (96 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles.
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.
Louise Turpin's face turned red and she began crying and dabbed her eyes with a tissue during the hearing while her husband appeared stoic.
The two will be sentenced to up to life in prison April 19, Riverside District Attorney Mike Hestrin said.
"The defendants ruined lives so I think it's just and fair that the sentence be equivalent to first-degree murder," Hestrin said.
The Turpins had led a mostly solitary, but seemingly unremarkable life until the teenager jumped from a window and called for help.
David Turpin, 57, had worked as an engineer for both Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Louise Turpin, 50, was listed as a housewife in a 2011 bankruptcy filing.
The family led a nocturnal existence, which kept them largely out of sight from neighbors in a middle-class subdivision.
In a recording of the 911 call, the girl who escaped said two younger sisters and a brother were chained to beds and she couldn't take it.
"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 responded discovered a house of horrors.
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.
The intervention marked a new start for the children who lived in such isolation that the teen who called for help didn't know her address.
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, and allowed to do little except write in journals, authorities said.
The kids were rarely allowed outside but went 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 then obtained temporary conservatorship over the adults.
The social services agency tasked with overseeing the younger children declined to comment on their cases.
The 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 the seven adult children. He said they value their privacy.
"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 since 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."Comment on this story
The guilty pleas were important to spare the children from testifying, though 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."
Associated Press reporters John Antczak and Brian Melley in Los Angeles contributed to this report.