To neighbor Ricky Vinyard, the Turpin family seemed odd from the moment they arrived at the end of his remote dirt road in this small town 50 miles south of Fort Worth, where they had lived earlier.
“When they moved in, they were really mysterious people. They didn’t talk to us or socialize,” recalled Vinyard of that day in 2000.
His suspicions about how David and Louise Turpin treated their eight children grew as the years passed. The family rarely left the four-bedroom, two-bath home on 36 acres dotted with mesquite trees. They kept lights on at all hours, blinds drawn. One Christmas they bought eight new children’s bicycles that sat outside, unused, until they became sun bleached.
The children rarely emerged. Soon after the family arrived, one of the older girls tried to run away but was returned by a local resident. The family stacked a dumpster in their yard with trash that eventually filled the house and a nearby double-wide trailer. David Turpin would stand in the driveway shooting cans with his pistol, aiming toward the road.
“As time went on, it got worse and worse,” Vinyard, a tree cutter, said as he sat in his living room Friday.
Last week, officials in California announced formal charges against the Turpins, accused of abusing their 13 children inside a home they moved to in Perris in Riverside County.
David Turpin, 56, and wife Louise, 49, were each charged with multiple felony counts of torture, child abuse, abuse of dependent adults and false imprisonment. David Turpin was also charged with one count of a lewd act on a child by force. If convicted, they face up to 94 years to life in prison.
The Turpin children, ranging from 2 to 29 years old, appeared to have undergone years of abuse and starvation, some shackled to their beds, authorities said. It did not appear the couple had been reported previously to authorities in Texas, where records show they also lived in Fort Worth from 1990 to 1999.
On Saturday, Patrick Crimmins, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, said they did not have any reports or investigations concerning the Turpin family.
Vinyard said he and his wife considered reporting the couple to Rio Vista authorities. But he had reservations because he had grown up in the town of fewer than a thousand people, at the end of a county road surrounded by pastures, miles from the sheriff’s office.
A deputy was called to the Turpin house in 2001 when a child was bitten by a dog, and Vinyard’s uncle called the sheriff when the couple’s three pigs got loose in 2002. But Vinyard and his wife decided not to alert authorities about suspected abuse.
“We discussed it and we didn’t want to have the repercussions with them,” Vinyard said, especially since Turpin was armed.
Daughter Barbara Vinyard, 19, and her sister played with the Turpin children a few times in a nearby creek, but they wouldn’t share their names.
“We had to guess them basically, and the kids didn’t like that either,” she said. “The next time we saw them walking down the street, one sibling said to the other, ‘We can’t talk to them anymore, remember?’”
The family had a Mustang and a large passenger van they drove to the dumpster on their property. Eventually, the dumpster disappeared and trash piled up alongside toys and Christian schoolbooks, she recalled.
Sometimes in the evenings she would hear the Turpin children playing in their yard, so one day she grabbed a jump rope and knocked on the door of the trailer.
“I knew they were really strange, but I was willing to get over the strangeness to be friends,” she said.
A skinny, pale girl with long brown hair opened the door and just stared, she said. “Her eyes just got real wide. She closed the door back in my face,” Vinyard recalled. “… She came around the back, looked at me and then ran back away into the house, through the back door.”
Vinyard didn’t try to reach out to the children again.
“For the most part, when you live out in the country, you keep to yourself,” she said, but hearing that the couple have been charged makes her wonder if there was more she could have done to help. “Hearing about this makes me think I didn’t do my part as a person,” she said.
After the family left, repo men showed up for their two cars, and their house was foreclosed. Billy Baldwin and his mother bought the house a year later, the interior trashed, the bathroom floor rotted through, he said.
Inside, Baldwin found a handful of Polaroids taken when the Turpins left. One shows a bed with a metal rail that has a rope tied to it, he said.
Ricky Vinyard walked through the family’s trailer at the time, and reading reports from California this week reminded him of what he saw.
“It was waist-deep in filth. There were dead dogs and cats in there,” he said, the smell “rancid.”
He found two Chihuahuas that had survived by eating waste from a mound of soiled diapers. The family’s Ford F-150 truck was heaped with the dirty diapers and empty Vienna sausage cans, he said, “It seemed like that’s all they ate.”
The couple had claimed to home-school their children, and the feces-littered living room had the trappings of a makeshift classroom, he said, including eight small desks, a chalkboard, alphabet and number signs stapled to the wall.
As he moved from room to room, he noticed something odd: “Everything had locks on it: The closet had locks, the toy chest, the refrigerator.”
“There were no beds, just mattresses,” he said, and “There wasn’t a place in that house that wasn’t filthy.”
Reporters have been camped on their lawn all week, and his wife is scheduled to appear on the “Dr. Phil” show. Like his daughter, Vinyard wishes his family had reported their neighbors earlier to officials in Texas.
“I feel really guilty we didn’t,” he said.