Ask just about anyone who has a tight-knit family and they’ll tell you it’s the absolute best. While some people yearn for their independence the moment they turn 18, some people simply can’t imagine life without their family members. From the outside, the Turpins of southern California felt the same way.

David and Louise had 13 sons and daughters in all. The family took regular vacations to Disneyland and Las Vegas, and they seemed relatively normal. Sure, they had their eccentric moments, but neighbors claimed they were happy… or so they thought. Then, early one morning, the nasty truth about the family was revealed—and the news shook the entire country.

In the southern California town of Perris, about 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles, David and Louise Turpin appeared, from the perspectives of neighbors, friends, and family, to be raising the perfect—if not eccentric—family. Soon, everyone learned how wrong they’d been.

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David and Louise’s 13 children, who ranged in age from two to 29, all lived under one roof. As a family, they regularly took trips to nearby vacation hotspots like Disneyland or Las Vegas. It wasn’t rare to see them all grouped together in matching outfits, smiling for a photo.

But that familial love was all a farce—a lie. It was a cover for the truly depraved truth, which surely would have stayed hidden, were it not for the heroism of one teenage Turpin daughter.

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It was Sunday morning when two of the kids—who, for privacy’s sake, remain unnamed—did something typical teenagers might do: they snuck out a window. However, they weren’t running off to the mall or to hang out with friend.

Once out the window, one of the kids became terrified. She quickly returned home, scared of what might happen if her parents found out she’d left home—and for a good reason. Undeterred by her sibling’s fears, the other teen continued.

Monica Akhtar / The Washington Post

This 17-year-old girl had a good reason for sneaking out. She’d swiped a deactivated cell phone from her house before climbing out of the window. All cell phones, deactivated or not, are capable of calling 9-1-1. Frantically, she dialed those three numbers.

With emergency services on the line, the 17-year-old spilled her parents’ secrets. David and Louise had been holding her and all of her siblings against their will. They’d chained their children to the furniture, and the teen had photos to prove it all. Still, these weren’t even the most horrifying truths uncovered by this girl’s phone call.

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Later, after seeing the girl’s photos—and noticing her malnourished condition—Captain Greg Fellows of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department conducted a welfare check of the Turpin home. What he saw there would horrify any sane person.

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“If you can imagine being 17 years old,” Captain Fellows said, “and appearing to be a 10-year-old, being chained to a bed, being malnourished and the injuries associated with that—I would call that torture.” The torturous conditions extended beyond just the physical, though…

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The Turpin children—though that may not be the right word as seven of them were 18 years of age or older—were allowed a maximum of two showers per year. They were fed one pre-rationed meal per day, and they were, at times, barred from using the bathrooms. Still, it got worse.

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David and Louise often bought their children toys, but they forbid them to open them up or play with them. The kids rarely saw the sun, as they were made to stay up all night and sleep during daylight hours.

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Amazingly, the Turpins had been permitted to register their household as a home school, which they called the “Sandcastle Day School,” though what the kids learned there was up for debate. Some didn’t know what a police officer was. They were all so malnourished that even the adults looked like children. One 29-year-old Turpin daughter weighed just 82 pounds.

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“In more than 20 years as a prosecutor in Riverside County,” County District Attorney, Michael Hestrin, said, “this is one of the most disturbing cases I’ve seen.” Even he could barely stomach the urine-soaked carpets of the Turpin house. But nothing was more strange than the Turpins’ reactions…

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David and Louise’s reactions to investigators were strange, to say the least. As reported by The Washington Post, authorities said the couple couldn’t provide a reason why their kids were shackled to furniture, and Louis seemed “perplexed” by investigator’s questions. What could have led them to do this to their children?

As NBC News reported, the abuse had started small when the family lived in Fort Worth, Texas, and “intensified” after the move to California. “It ‘started out as neglect’ and became severe, pervasive child abuse,” the district attorney explained. So what became of the kids, and what would happen to David and Louise?

Authorities brought the children to a nearby hospital right away. They also arrested David and Louise, charging them with “12 counts of torture, seven counts of abuse on a dependent adult, 12 counts of false imprisonment, and six counts of child abuse,” according to NBC News.

Riverside County Sheriff’s Department / NBC News

Outside of the household, people couldn’t believe the news. What had happened to that perfect family who brought their kids to Disneyland? David’s parents, James and Betty, told ABC News that they were “surprised and shocked.”

David-Louise Turpin / Facebook via BBC

David’s parents said their son had once told them, “God called on [him and Louise]” to have so many kids. As a result, they forced the kids to memorize scriptures. Some, out of fear, tried memorizing the entire Bible.

Louise’s sister, Teresa Robinette, was equally devastated. “I’m seriously so heartbroken for my nieces and nephews,” she told NBC News. “I can’t even say the words to you that I would like to say to [Louise]. I’m so angry inside. I’m mad. I’m hurt.”

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Perhaps the most important question to come from all this—besides those of basic morality—is if this was preventable. Were there clues left behind that could have tipped off someone sooner? Well…

One neighbor told ABC News that he’d seen the malnourished, skinny kids marching single file as they all mowed the lawn together. When they left the house, he’d noticed, it was only as a family—and only at night. Other people had noticed suspicious signs, too.

The Washington Post

Another neighbor told NPR that the kids were abnormally awkward. Once, when the neighbor had complimented them on a Nativity scene they’d assembled at Christmas, they all “froze [as] if by doing so they could become invisible.”

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One of the Turpins, a 22-year-old son, had been allowed to attend classes at a community college—but only under the strict supervision of his mother. Classmates said he smelled horrible, made no eye contact, and looked pained.

Despite the signs that something wasn’t right with the Turpin family, no one ever contacted the authorities. Neighbors and family were afraid to violate the Turpins’ privacy and perhaps be deemed snobs or judgmental. Luckily, that one teen daughter found the strength to act.

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“We do need to acknowledge the courage of the young girl who escaped from that residence,” Captain Fellows said. Faced with an impossibly bleak situation, she summoned the courage to fight back.

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A story like this is enough to turn anyone’s stomach. Hopefully in the future, people will be less hesitant to contact the authorities when something around them feels off!

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