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How a malnourished teen escaped a house full of chains and freed her 12 siblings

There were no toys and no bicycles on the front lawn — only weeds that sometimes reached six feet tall.

Neighbors rarely saw the 13 siblings who lived inside the home in a quiet neighborhood in Southern California, because they never went outside to play. Instead, authorities said, they were held captive in a dirty and foul-smelling house, some shackled to the furniture with chains and padlocks.

Minutes before sunrise Sunday, a 17-year-old girl escaped from the home in Perris, not far from Los Angeles, slipping through a window and dialing 911 on a deactivated cellphone, Capt. Greg Fellows of the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said Tuesday at a news conference. Under federal law, cellphones — even those that are no longer operational — must be able to call emergency services.

Deputies met the teenager, who reported that she and her siblings were being held against their will.

Fellows said she showed them photos that convinced them to believe her and conducted a welfare check at the home. There, he said, deputies found a dozen other siblings, age 2 to 29, malnourished and living in what authorities called “horrific” conditions.

“We do need to acknowledge the courage of the young girl who escaped from that residence to bring attention so they could get the help that they so needed,” he said during the news conference.

Fellows said he could not provide details about the scene, but told reporters, “If you can imagine being 17 years old 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.” He said there was no evidence to indicate sexual abuse but noted that authorities are still investigating the circumstances.

The biological parents, David Allen Turpin, 57, and Louise Anna Turpin, 49, have been arrested on charges of torture and child endangerment, authorities said.

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said in an earlier news release that the 13 siblings all appeared to be children, so deputies were “shocked” to discover that seven of them are adults.

They appeared malnourished and dirty and told authorities that they were starving.

Authorities gave them food and beverages, then the six minors were taken to Riverside University Hospital System Medical Center for treatment, according to the sheriff’s department. The seven older siblings were taken to a different hospital.

Kimberly Trone, a spokeswoman for the Riverside County Regional Medical Center in Moreno Valley, said Tuesday that the minors were admitted into the pediatrics unit for treatment Sunday but that she could not comment on their conditions. However, she noted that the patients, who range in age from 2 to 17, were taken to the sheriff’s department before being transported to the hospital.

Corona Regional Medical Center spokeswoman Linda Pearson confirmed Tuesday that the seven adult siblings were being treated at the hospital, but did not elaborate.

Susan von Zabern, with the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, said during the news conference that social services officials are seeking court authorization to provide care for the siblings, including the adults, if necessary.

Authorities said that David and Louise Turpin were “unable to immediately provide a logical reason” why their children were shackled and chained and that Louise Turpin seemed “perplexed” by the investigators’ questions. After an interview with police, the two were arrested. Bail is set at $9 million each.

A public information officer for the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office said no criminal case has yet been filed, so no court documents are available. The couple is expected to be arraigned Thursday, so prosecutors have until then make a decision, he said.

Perris Mayor Michael Vargas said he was “devastated by this act of cruelty.”

“I can’t begin to imagine the pain and suffering they have endured,” he said.

David Turpin’s parents, James and Betty Turpin of West Virginia, told ABC News that they were “surprised and shocked” by the allegations. They said their son and daughter-in-law, whom they have not seen for several years, are religious and kept having children because “God called on them.”

The grandparents said that the children are home-schooled, made to memorize long scriptures in the Bible. Some of the children, the grandparents told ABC News, have tried to memorize the entire book.

Louise Turpin’s sister, Teresa Robinette, told NBC News Tuesday that the discovery of the childrens’ living conditions felt “like a bad dream.”

“I’m seriously so heartbroken for my nieces and nephews,” she said. “I can’t even say the words to you that I would like to say to [Louise Turpin]. I’m so angry inside. I’m mad. I’m hurt.”

David Turpin is listed in a state Department of Education directory as the principal of Sandcastle Day School, a private K-12 school that he ran from the couple’s home. The school opened in 2011, according to the directory. In the 2016-2017 year, the school enrolled six students — one in each the fifth, sixth, eighth, ninth, 10th and 12th grades.

Fellows, with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, said Tuesday that there is no indication that other students were involved in the school. He also said that authorities have no information about any involvement with any religious organization.

Fellows said the Turpins have lived in the city since 2014 and that authorities had never been called to the residence in that time.

But according to public records, the couple own the home and have lived there since 2010. They previously lived in Texas for many years and have twice declared bankruptcy.

The Turpins most recently filed for bankruptcy in California in 2011. According to court documents, David Turpin made about $140,000 per year as an engineer at Northrop Grumman. The couple listed about $150,000 in assets, including $87,000 in 401(k) plans from Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin. Louise Turpin’s occupation was listed as a “homemaker.” The couple owed debt between $100,000 and $500,000, according to bankruptcy documents.

One of their bankruptcy lawyers, Nancy Trahan, said in a phone interview with The Washington Post on Monday evening that she met with the couple about four or five times in 2011 but hasn’t seen them since then. She described them as “just very normal.”

“They seemed like very nice people,” Trahan said. “They spoke often and fondly of their children.”

She did not recall hearing about a school run from their home.

“I just hope those kids are okay,” Trahan said. “I wouldn’t have seen it coming.”

Photos on a Facebook page that appeared to be created by David and Louise Turpin show the couple at Disneyland with the children, wearing matching shirts. Several photos appeared to be taken at a wedding ceremony. The parents posed in bride and groom attire, surrounded by 10 female children smiling for the camera in matching purple plaid dresses and white shoes. Three male children stood behind them wearing suits.

The couple’s middle-class neighborhood is a new tract housing development of ranch-style homes located about 70 miles east of Los Angeles. The homes were all built close together, with only about five feet between the houses.

Andria Valdez, a neighbor, told the Press-Enterprise that she had teased in the past that the Turpins reminded her of the Cullen family from the fictional series “Twilight.”

“They only came out at night,” she told the newspaper. “They were really, really pale.”

Shortly after Kimberly Milligan, 50, moved to the neighborhood in June 2015, a contractor for the development told her the Turpins had about a dozen children, she said in an interview with The Post.

But in the years that followed, Milligan rarely heard the children and only occasionally saw three or four of the children briefly leave or enter the home. Milligan found this particularly odd, because their houses are only about 50 feet apart from each other.

“I thought they were very young — 11, 12, 13 at the most — because of the way they carried themselves,” Milligan said. “When they walked they would skip.” They all looked very thin, their skin as white as paper, said Robert Perkins, Milligan’s son.

And their yard would “always look in disarray,” Milligan said. Code enforcement officials “cracked down” on the overgrown weeds in the front yard, several neighbors told media outlets.

Milligan recounted speaking to the children once, around Christmas 2015. Three of the children were setting up a Nativity display while she was out for a walk. When she complimented the children on the decorations, “they actually froze,” she said. Milligan apologized, telling them that there was no need to be afraid.

“They still did not say a word,” Milligan said. “They were like children whose only defense was to be invisible.”

Milligan said she started seeing less and less of the family in the last year or so. She said she feels a bit guilty for not saying something about the family’s oddities earlier.

“You knew something was off. It didn’t make a lot of sense,” Milligan said. “But this is something else entirely.”

Law enforcement officers could be seen at the family’s home from about 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, Perkins said. He managed to briefly glance inside the open door of the home and noticed a messy array of boxes and chairs all over the place, he said.

One neighbor, Josh Tiedeman, told the Associated Press that the children were “super skinny — not like athletic skinny, like malnourished skinny.”

“They’d all have to mow the lawns together, and then they’d all go in,” Tiedeman said.

Mark Uffer, chief executive of Corona Regional Medical Center, said during the news conference Tuesday that the adult siblings have been “friendly” and “cooperative.”

Although medical experts acknowledged that the siblings will likely require long-term psychological support to aid in their recovery, Uffer said, “I believe that they’re hopeful life will get better for them.”

Marwa Eltagouri contributed to this report.

This post has been updated.

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