The Most Chilling Part of the Turpin Siblings' Hellish Existence Before Their Parents' Arrest

·12 min read

Jordan Turpin didn't know which part of the street was for walking.

"I was actually on the road, because I didn't know about the sidewalks," the 21-year-old told ABC News' Diana Sawyer in a July interview that aired Nov. 19 on 20/20 about the day she escaped and called 911. "You're supposed to be on the sidewalk, but I'd never been out there."

"Out there" was beyond the confines of her family's home in Perris, a city of roughly 79,000 in Southern California's Inland Empire, where Jordan and her 12 siblings were imprisoned by their own parents, some of them chained to their beds and all starved and physically abused, as well as denied age-appropriate education, regular bathing, medical treatment and basically every other form of inherent liberty.

And not only had Jordan never strolled down the street like a regular teenager, "I literally never talked to someone on the phone," she told Sawyer.

David and Louise Turpin were sentenced in 2019 to 25 years to life in prison after pleading guilty to torture and multiple counts of false imprisonment, cruelty to adult dependents and willful child cruelty. Prior to their sentencing each read prepared statements in court, Louise apologizing for "everything I've done to hurt my children" and David "sorry if I've done anything to cause them harm."

There were "good intentions" behind his approach to discipline, he said.

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At the Turpins' house in Perris, discipline could include being locked in a dog kennel or shackled to a bed. Police initially thought a dozen of the victims in the house they encountered on that day in 2018 were minor children; it turned out that seven of them were between the ages of 18 and 29 but drastically undersized due to malnutrition. The youngest child in the house was 2.

Riverside County sheriff's deputies initially thought 17-year-old Jordan was about 10 when they first saw her, according to their report.

Turpin family escape, Jordan, Jennifer Turpin, ABC 20/20, Diane Sawyer
ABC 20/20

But in court on the day their mother and father were sentenced in April 2019, several of the Turpin kids—including the eldest who at the time wished to remain Jane Doe 4—made statements that not only reflected their mindboggling resiliency, but also a tendency to want to defend David and Louise, a hallmark of long-term abuse. As the story unfolded through their interviews with investigators, some painted a picture of two initially well-meaning parents forced to make tough choices.

A Facebook account reviewed by the Los Angeles Times had shown the whole Turpin brood on a trip to Disneyland, posing for pictures looking like any other family, and in a 2016 picture all 13 children flanked their parents (and an Elvis Presley impersonator) during what appeared to be David and Louise's vow renewal ceremony.

"I want the court to know that our parents loved each other and loved each of their children," a sibling who was 21 at the time said in a statement read by one of their attorneys. "I remember our mother sitting in her recliner and crying, saying she don't know what to do. She didn't want to use rope or chain, but she was afraid her children were taking in too much sugar and caffeine."

Turpin family escape, David Turpin, court
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

They kept soda in the house because their dad "needed it for work," the statement explained, continuing, "He would fall asleep driving and got in an accident. They didn't know what else to do. I believe our parents feared if they asked for help, they would lose their children. I believe our parents tried their best...They believed everything they did was to protect us."

Second-eldest sibling Joshua Turpin, then 27, who said he was living in an apartment and studying to become a software engineer, said in court, "I cannot describe in words what we went through growing up. Sometimes I still have nightmares of things that have happened, such as my siblings being chained up or being beaten. But that is the past and this is now. I love my parents and have forgiven them for a lot of the things that they did to us."

He had since learned how to ride a bicycle and now he rode his bike everywhere, he shared, including on long rides just "because I enjoy it so much."

On behalf of his then-25-year-old sister Jessica, also said to be enrolled in college and living on her own, Joshua read, "I love both my parents so much. Although it may not have been the best way of raising us, I'm glad that they did because it made me the person I am today. I just want to thank them for teaching me about God and faith. I pray often for them."

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That being said, the adult siblings' attorney Jack Osborn told reporters after court that none of his clients objected to their parents' sentence, saying, "They understand there are consequences."

Yet it's possible that the conditions police found the Turpins in could still be their life if Jordan hadn't decided that Jan. 14, 2018, was the day she was going to crawl out the window in the dark, clutching an old cell phone, and call for help, her pre-dawn movements blurrily captured by a security camera across the street.

"I just ran away from home," she told the 911 dispatcher at the time. "And we have abusing parents." Asked how they were abusive, Jordan said, "They hit us. They like to throw us across the room. They pull out our hair. They yank out our hair. My two little sisters right now are chained up." She didn't know what street she lived on or her home address.

"I've never been out," she explained. She walked toward a stop sign to find a street name, terrified she'd be found out. While Jordan walked she talked, telling the dispatcher sometimes she couldn't breathe in her house because it—and she and her siblings—were so dirty. Her last bath was "almost a year ago." She had never seen a gun, but she had heard her parents talking about having one.

About an hour and a half later, sheriff's deputies arrived at the family's house on Muir Woods Road to perform a welfare check and within 30 minutes David and Louise were in custody—and everyone who supposedly knew the Turpins couldn't believe it. The neighbors living in plain view of the house but who didn't know the family at all were pained that something like this was occurring right in their midst.

Turpin family escape, Family home, Perris, Ca
FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

The kids' paternal grandparents, James and Betty Turpin, told ABC News from their home in West Virginia that they hadn't seen David and Louise in four or five years, but they were "surprised and shocked." Ivan Trahan, an attorney who represented the couple in a 2011 bankruptcy filing, told the Los Angeles Times they "seemed like very normal people who fell into financial problems" and they "spoke highly of their children."

David was employed full-time as an engineer when they filed, Trahan explained, but it was difficult for them to provide for so many children and they wound up in debt.

The abuse had started long before they relocated to Perris in 2014. And according to investigators, David and Louise had left their kids living on their own in a trailer in Rio Vista, Texas, for several years. The parents lived nearby but didn't visit, instead calling and ordering the two eldest children to discipline the others.

"David Turpin conditioned the children over years, over decades, of physical torment and abuse, all stemming from Texas," Riverside County Deputy District Attorney Kevin Beecham said in a court hearing in June 2018. "He conditioned them in a way that's unimaginable...When the parents weren't there, they were still forced to obey."

When the responding deputy asked Jordan why, if their dad worked and mom was often out, she and her siblings didn't just leave the house, she replied simply, "Because we're terrified."

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A neighbor from across the street, Kimberly Milligan, told the LA Times she used to see a woman with an infant when she first moved in, then occasionally she saw three pale-looking kids getting into the car with their parents, but the children were never out in the neighborhood. Another time she saw a few kids, younger than teenagers, stringing up Christmas lights at the house and said hello, but they "looked at us like a child who wants to make themselves invisible."

"I thought the kids were home-schooled," she said. "You know something is off, but you don't want to think bad of people."

David had registered the kids' home school with the California Department of Education as a private, non-religious (changed from originally being registered as religious, the Times reported) K-12 institution with six enrolled students. Sandcastle Day School's address was the same as the Perris house, with David listed as the principal.

Multiple neighbors also recalled seeing four kids laying sod in the yard one night, a woman who seemed to be their mom watching them from an archway in the front of the house.

"I thought it was weird, but I'm the kind of guy that doesn't want to get in anybody's business," one neighbor said.

Turpin family escape, Jordan, Jennifer Turpin, ABC 20/20, Diane Sawyer
ABC 20/20

Jordan and her older sister Jennifer Turpin (formerly Jane Doe 4, the eldest Turpin sibling) sat down with Sawyer last month for their first interview since escaping what was quickly branded the "house of horrors." Though, sadly, it's hardly the only dwelling of its kind or the only situation in which children were being terrorized by the people they're supposed to be able to trust most in the world.

In September 2018, Susan von Zabern, the longtime director of Riverside County's Department of Public Social Services, stepped down amid rampant criticism of the job her department was doing, as well as two lawsuits alleging negligent child abuse investigations in other cases.

In the wake of the Turpin discovery, von Zabern had said that Jordan's 911 call was "the first opportunity we had to intervene."

Jordan recalled on 20/20 of her 5:49 a.m. climb out the window, "That was my only chance. At least if something happened to me, at least I died trying."

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"I think it was us coming so close to death so many times" that finally gave her the courage to run, she explained. "I wanted to help everyone."

Jordan remembered feeling very worried that the deputy who responded to her call about 22 minutes later wouldn't believe her. And at first—as seen in his body cam footage shown on 20/20—he does ask if her parents knew that she was out of the house and if she was on any medication. Pills, he clarified, when she said she didn't know what medication was. The answer was no, she had never taken any pill ever as far as she knew.

Riverside County Sheriff's Deputy Anthony Colace was nearing the end of his overnight shift and had thought this call would be a routine return-the-runaway-to-her-house situation.

But Jordan had pictures on her cell phone of her sisters chained up. He radioed for assistance and soon enough he saw the whole haunting scene for himself.

Turpin family escape, Louise Turpin, court
DAMIAN DOVARGANES/AFP via Getty Images

"It seemed that the mother was perplexed as to why we were at the residence," Riverside County Sheriff's Captain Greg Fellows told reporters after the arrests.

Corona Regional Medical Center chief executive Mark Uffer, who said five female and two male adult siblings from the house were being treated at his hospital, described the patients as "very friendly" and "very cooperative, and I believe very hopeful that life will get better for them after this event."

Uffer also noted that, in all his years in health care, he'd never seen anything like what was encountered at the Turpin house.

Jennifer, now 33, told Sawyer she first felt really free when she heard music playing in the hospital and got up to dance.

She and Jordan and another sister went to a park afterward for the first time, and Jordan recalled thinking, "How could heaven be better than this?"

And no matter what happens to them moving forward, Jennifer said, "Nothing's ever going to be that bad. Nothing's going to be as bad as 29 years in what the only word I know to call it is hell."

Meanwhile, an investigation is ongoing into how the siblings have fared in Riverside County in the wake of their parents' arrest, with Jordan telling Sawyer in July that she didn't really have means of buying food, but older siblings were helping her out since her release from foster care and she had temporary housing through a school program. More than $600,000 in donations poured in several years ago as people learned of the Turpin kids' plight, as well as countless offers of complimentary services, such as dental work—but according to what several siblings and county employees have told ABC News, the Turpins have been unable to access most of the funds.

Turpin family escape, ABC 20/20, District Attorney Mike Hestrin
ABC 20/20

"I had to pass on those referrals to the Child Protective Services workers and the hospital," Melissa Donaldson, director of Victim Services in Riverside County, told ABC News' David Scott of the offers of free care. "And none of them were utilized." (County officials, citing court-ordered privacy and sealed records, refused to explain to ABC News how the fund worked or how decisions regarding the siblings' care had been made.)

So the spotlight is now back on the county social services that are supposed to be in place to protect the most vulnerable.

Acknowledging the holes in the system, District Attorney Mike Hestrin, who prosecuted their parents, told Sawyer, "That is unimaginable to me—that we could have the very worst case of child abuse that I've ever seen, and then that we would then not be able to get it together to give them basic needs."

He added, "If we can't care for the Turpin victims, then how do we have a chance to care for anyone?"

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