A couple accused of holding 13 children captive in a Southern California home described by authorities as a torture chamber were charged Thursday with child abuse and torture.
David Turpin, 56, and Louise Turpin, 49, jailed since their arrests over the weekend, pleaded not guilty in their first court appearance Thursday afternoon. Bond was set at $12 million bail.
During a Thursday news conference, prosecutors announced criminal charges against both defendants and detailed what they called a case of "human depravity" that continued for years and left their children malnourished, undersized and with cognitive impairments. The charges included torture, abuse of a dependent adult, child abuse or neglect and false imprisonment. David Turpin also faces a count of lewd act on a child.
Prosecutors said the siblings, ranging in age from 2 to 29, suffered years of "severe" abuse. They were were initially bound with ropes, but when the children figured out how to escape from such bondage, the couple switched to chains and padlocks, just one of many forms of punishment, the district attorney said.
"These punishments would last for weeks or even months at a time," said Riverside County District Attorney Michael Hestrin. "About the only thing the children were allowed to do was write in journals. We've recovered those journals, hundreds of them."
Hestrin said the journals will be a significant part of the investigation.
Public defenders were assigned to counsel the Turpins. During a news conference after the court appearance, they said they were reviewing the case, which they described as "very serious."
"Our clients are presumed to be innocent," said attorney David Macher. "They are presumed to be not guilty. We're going to provide a vigorous defense."
The attorneys were asked whether they think the couple can receive a fair trial.
"Part of it will depend on the reporting and the coverage of it," said Jeff Zimel, supervisor at the public defender's office. "People who are not in courtroom begin to form opinions about what happened."
The Turpins face 94 years to life in prison if convicted of the charges, which involve crimes from 2010 to the present in Riverside County. They were ordered to return to court in late February.
"There are cases that stick with you that haunt you," Hestrin said. "Sometimes in this business we're faced with looking at human depravity, and that's what we're looking at."
With the exception of the youngest child, a 2-year-old girl, the couple's children were all severely malnourished and showed signs of muscular degradation, according to Hestrin. He noted that the oldest child, a 29-year-old woman, weighs just 82 pounds, while a 12-year-old child is the weight of an average 7-year-old.
According to a law enforcement official with knowledge of the case, the children were allowed to shower just twice per year and ate rationed meals once per day. All 13 remain hospitalized, receiving IV antibiotics, vitamins and nutrition, according to the official.
They had not been to a doctor in years and none have ever seen a dentist, Hestrin added.
The secret horror was revealed Sunday when one of the children, after two years of planning, escaped and contacted authorities, Hestrin said. The 17-year-old girl jumped out a window and called 911, telling deputies about the living conditions at the home and providing photographic evidence, according to the sheriff's department.
When authorities confronted the girl's mother, Louise Anna Turpin, sheriff's Capt. Greg Fellows said she appeared "perplexed" about why officers had come to the home.
"If you can imagine being 17 years old and appearing to be a 10-year-old, being chained to a bed, being malnourished and injuries associated with that, I would call that torture," Fallows said, explaining the possible charge face by the parents.
On Wednesday, authorities searched the couple's current home in Perris, 60 miles southeast of Los Angeles. Investigators removed dozens of boxes, what appeared to be two safes and pieces of a bed frame from the home. Some siblings were shackled to furniture in the foul-smelling four-bedroom home that looked perfectly normal from the outside.
The Turpins have lived in two Riverside County communities since moving to California from Texas in 2011. The district attorney said the abuse began in Texas and "intensified" as they years went on in California.
Police said they were never called to either Southern California home, nor were any reports fielded by child protective services.
It's not clear what motivated the Turpins to live a secluded life with their large brood or what went on in the house.
The grandparents of the siblings told the Associated Press that 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."
The parents of David Turpin released a statement Thursday afternoon through their spokesperson: "James and Betty Turpin have seen through the media about the charges filed against their son and daughter-in-law this afternoon. Right now, Mr. and Mrs. Turpin's attention and efforts are trying to speak with their grandchildren. We are contacting the appropriate authorities but have been unable to make contact. James and Betty Turpin want their grandchildren to know that they love them and care about them very much and their utmost concern is for their safety at this time."
The suburban Southern California home served as a private school and a prison for the siblings, authorities said. No state agency regulates or oversees private schools in California, and they are not licensed by the state Education Department.
There is no indication that anyone other than the siblings were enrolled in the school, called Sancastle Day School.
On the "Today" show Wednesday, Louise Anna Turpin's sister said the children didn't have a social life and weren't allowed to watch TV. The woman's siblings told NBC News they had not seen her in about two years and any contact they did have was by phone.
One of the few people who had contact with the family is a Las Vegas Elvis impersonator. In YouTube videos, he can be seen performing vow renewal ceremonies for the Turpins, most recently in October 2015. The children also appear at the ceremonies, dancing and posing for photos.