LOS ANGELES// A California couple who kept their 13 children shackled in their own filth have pleaded not guilty to torture and child abuse – including one count of sexual abuse.
David and Louise Turpin are facing life in prison 12 counts of torture and false imprisonment and seven accounts of abuse of a dependent adult after police discovered horrific conditions at their home in Riverside, California.
Mr Turpin has also been charged with one count of sexual abuse against one of his children aged under 14.
The husband and wife appeared dressed in black civilian clothes with their legs and arms in chains. Mr Turpin spoke only to confirm his plea.
The couple were given two different attorneys to represent them, allowing each to claim the other has more culpability if they wish, according to Mrs Turpin's attorney Jeff Moore.
David Macher, the public defender representing Mr Turpin, admitted that "it's going to be a challenge" to defend his client.
"Our clients are presumed to be innocent. It's a very important assumption and it applies to each and every one of you. We're going to apply a vigorous defence to Mr Turpin," said Mr Macher.
When asked by a reporter why Mr Turpin appeared dazed, Mr Macher said he was "not in a position to discuss his mental state in public at this time."
Mr Macher asked Judge Michael Donner to block media from recording the court case, but the judge denied the motion, adding that "coverage of this case spans the globe."
The Judge Donner set the bail at $12m and scheduled the next hearing for February 23.
The abuse was revealed when one of the children, a 17-year-old girl, escaped out of a window and called 911.
Police arrested David and Louise Turpin at their house on Sunday, and found her 12 siblings inside the four-bedroom home, padlocked and shackled to the furniture, lying in their own urine and faeces.
At first, officers believed they were all minors, but discovered the children were aged between two and 29.
Doctors said all 13 were hospitalised, and were so malnourished they were at risk of shock.
In a press conference on Thursday morning, Riverside District Attorney Michael Hestrin said the couple kept their children for years in disgusting conditions.
Mr Hestrin said the Turpins would lock up their children for weeks on end as a “form of punishment”, and left them severely malnourished after feeding them just once a day.
“As a punishment starting many years ago they began to be tied up, first with ropes,” said Mr Hestrin. “One victim was tied up and hog tied. When that victim was able to escape the ropes the defendants started using chains and padlocks.
“These punishments would last for weeks or even months,” he added. “The victims were often not released from their chains to go to the bathroom.”
Mr Hestrin said all 13 of the children were hospitalised with “severe caloric malnutrition connected with muscle wasting.”
The oldest child, a 29-year-old woman, weighed just 82lbs (5 stone) when she was rescued by police.
Doctors said some of the children were suffering from cognitive neuropathy as a result of the abuse, meaning their mental age was much lower than their real age.
Mr Hestrin said the children were also subject to “frequent beatings and even strangulation” as punishment for washing.
“If the children were found to wash their hands above the wrist area they would be accused of playing in the water and would be locked up,” said the District Attorney.
“None of the victims were allowed to shower more than once per year.”
The DA said the abuse began in 2010 when the family lived in Texas, and intensified when they moved to California.
Mr Hestrin said the parents lived apart from their children in Fort Worth, Texas, and would visit to deliver food.
David and Louise Turpin would taunt their children, bringing home toys but never removing them from their packaging.
“The parents would buy food – apple pie, pumpkin pie – and let the children look at it but not eat it,” said Mr Hestrin.
He said that officers working on the case were disturbed by the grim details but were determined to get justice for the children.
“There are cases that stick with you that haunt you. Sometimes in this business we’re faced with human depravity and that’s what we’re facing here,” said Mr Hestrin.
“This is severe emotional, physical abuse. This is depraved conduct.”
He added that the children have received medical attention are in “good hands”.
“They’re relieved. They’re in good hands, they’re being cared for,” he said.
Mr Hestrin praised the bravery of the 17-year-old girl who alerted the police.
He said she had been planning her escape with one of her sisters for two years.
The sister climbed out of a window with her, but turned back out of fear, the DA said.
“The 17-year-old had been working on a plan with her sibling to escape the abuse for more than two years,” said Mr Hestrin.
“She took her sibling with her through window, but that sibling became frightened and went back.”
Police who searched the house found hundreds of journals written by the children, which the DA said would be “significant” for their case.
“I think they will be very significant. I think those journals will be strong evidence of what occurred in that home,” he said.