It was usually after midnight when Mike Clifford spotted the children from the house across the street.
Some nights, he’d see about six children — none of whom looked older than 15 — getting into a passenger van with their father and wonder where they could possibly be going at such an hour. Other nights, he’d see them through a second-story window in the Murrieta house, walking in circles for long periods of time.
Clifford, an aerospace machinist who works late shifts, tried to make sense of what he saw. Maybe the children had special needs. Maybe the repetitive circling was therapeutic. Maybe it was just their routine.
“It was kind of strange,” he said. But “there was never anything to say, ‘Oh, my God. I should call somebody.’”
It was a pattern of thinking followed by neighbors, 20 miles to the north in Perris, who a few years later caught similarly strange glimpses of the small, pale children of David and Louise Turpin.
After seeing them working under floodlights late at night to put sod in the family’s yard a few months ago, neighbors said it was odd but not so unsettling that they needed to call police.
The reality was far worse than anything they imagined.
The Turpins’ 13 children, authorities said, were captives in the couple’s tract house on Muir Woods Road and appeared to have undergone years of abuse and starvation. Some were shackled to their beds.
Authorities learned of the horrors inside the house after a 17-year-old girl called 911 early Sunday, saying she had escaped through a window from her parents’ house, where she and her siblings had been trapped. She’d used a deactivated cellphone to make the call, Riverside County Sheriff’s Capt. Greg Fellows said at a news conference Tuesday. She had photos to back up her claims.
Sheriff’s deputies were shocked by the girl’s small size and emaciated appearance, thinking she was only 10.
When deputies arrived at the house, it was “extremely dirty,” Fellows said. There was a strong, foul stench. Three young people were in chains. And yet, Fellows said, the children’s mother seemed surprised to see authorities.
“It seemed that the mother was perplexed as to why we were at the residence,” he said.
No prior law enforcement contact
Sheriff’s deputies had no prior contact with the Turpins or calls for service at their house, Fellows said. Likewise, the Police Department in Murrieta, where the family lived from 2010 to 2014 after moving to California from Texas, had no interactions with them, said a spokesman for the agency.
Perris Mayor Michael Vargas said his heart went out to the children.
“I can truly say that I am devastated at this act of cruelty. … I can’t even begin to imagine the pain and suffering that they have endured.”
David Turpin, 56, and Louise Turpin, 49, were arrested this week on suspicion of torture and child endangerment. Each is being held in lieu of $9-million bail.
The youngest of their children is 2. Deputies at first assumed from the children’s frail and malnourished appearance that all of them were minors but later determined that seven of them were adults ages 18 to 29, according to the Sheriff’s Department.
County adult and child protective service workers and medical professionals are assessing the siblings, Fellows said. The parents, he said, showed “no indication of mental illness at this time” that could explain what they did to their children.
Susan von Zabern, director of the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, said county children’s service officials are seeking court authorization to care for the siblings, “including the adult children to the extent that that’s necessary.”
Von Zabern said the 911 call received Sunday, which was cross-reported to social workers, was “the first opportunity we had to intervene.”
Although it is too early to know how long the siblings have been malnourished or subjected to abuse, she said, “their condition indicates it has been a prolonged period of time.”
Social workers, as is custom, will try to identify relatives who could care for the children, Von Zabern said. They would “be subject to all kinds of background investigations to make sure they’re suitable and stable.”
‘Hopeful that life will get better’
Mark Uffer, chief executive of the Corona Regional Medical Center, said seven of the adult Turpin children — five females and two males — are patients at his hospital and are staying in a secured area where they are being treated together.
“It’s hard to think of them as adults when you first see them because they’re small and their malnutrition,” Uffer said.
“They’re very friendly. They’re very cooperative, and I believe very hopeful that life will get better for them after this event.”
The Sandcastle Day School
Like many California families who choose to home-school their children, the Turpins registered their home with the state as a private school. They called it Sandcastle Day School.
During the last school year, the school was listed in state records as a private, nonreligious, co-ed institution that first appeared on the state registry in 2010, when the family lived in Murrieta. There were six students enrolled: one each in the fifth, sixth, eighth, ninth, 10th and 12th grades.
David Turpin, who was listed as the principal, submitted paperwork each year, but the information sought by the California Department of Education — like the address, type of school and enrollment numbers — likely offered authorities scant insight into the children’s lives.
The annual paperwork is all that California law requires.
Neither the Department of Education nor the local school districts had any legal responsibility to knock on the Turpins’ door, review their curriculum or assess their children’s academic performance. While state law requires private school employees to submit to fingerprinting and background checks, there is no such demand placed on parents teaching their own children.
“We really knew nothing about them,” said Grant Bennett, superintendent of the Perris Union High School District. “If they were in home school from the beginning, they wouldn’t have even been on our radar.”
‘It hit me like a ton of bricks’
Authorities said they have reviewed a Facebook page belonging to David and Louise Turpin. A joint account that appears to belong to the couple is filled with recent images of the large family, wearing matching outfits and smiling at Disneyland.
Photos posted in May 2016 depict an apparent marriage vow renewal ceremony between David and Louise, with an Elvis impersonator in a gold suit jacket. Their 13 children surround them — the girls in pink-and-purple plaid dresses, the boys in black suits.
In all of the photographs, the children are thin and short in stature. It is difficult to tell which ones are adults.
Eric Aguirre, the family’s former landlord in Murrieta, was shocked when he first saw news reports about the family.
“I was scrolling through Facebook going, ‘Why do I know these people?’ Why do I know these people?’” he said. “Then it hit me like a ton of bricks.”
Aguirre said the family rented their former five-bedroom house “sight unseen” after moving from Texas.
He interacted with the family only once, when he came over to perform routine maintenance. The children slept in bunk beds, he said, but nothing about their behavior or the condition of the house seemed out of the ordinary, he said.
The children, he said, “were quiet, shy, well-behaved.”
Times staff writer Esquivel reported from Perris, and Branson-Potts and Phillips reported from Los Angeles. Staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.
An earlier version of this story gave David Turpin’s age as 57. He is 56.