A Southern California couple accused of torturing and abusing some of their 13 children pleaded guilty in a Riverside courtroom Friday to all 14 felony counts against them.
The counts against David and Louise Turpin included torture, willful child cruelty and false imprisonment in what was described as a house of horrors in Perris, located about 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The abuse accusations involved their 12 oldest children.
The case now moves to the sentencing phase, set for April 19, instead of a trial. The Turpins face a maximum sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole. District Attorney Mike Hestrin said the couple's first chance for a parole hearing would be in 25 years.
Hestrin said the guilty pleas were important to protect the children from having to testify in a trial.
"This is among the worst, most aggravated child abuse cases that I have ever seen or been involved in," Hestrin said.
Defense attorneys declined to comment outside the courthouse.
The case was brought to light on Jan. 14, 2018, when the couple's 17-year-old daughter escaped the family's house, called 911 and told the dispatcher that her two younger sisters were "chained up to their beds," shackled so tightly their bodies were bruised, according to testimony from the defendants' preliminary hearing. The testimony further revealed what authorities described as a torture chamber where the brothers and sisters, ranging in age from 2 to 29, appeared to be held captive.
After responding to the family's home on Muir Woods Road in Perris, authorities said they found malnourished siblings shackled to furniture in filthy conditions, leading to the arrest of the couple accused of keeping them captive.
The intervention by authorities marked a new start for the children, who lived in such isolation that the teen who called for help didn't know her address and some of her siblings didn't understand the role of the police when they arrived at the house.
Two girls had been hastily released from their chains when police showed up, but a 22-year-old son remained shackled.
The young man said he and his siblings had been suspected of stealing food and being disrespectful, a detective testified. The man said he had been tied up with ropes at first and then, after learning to wriggle free, restrained with increasingly larger chains on and off over six years.
Authorities said the children were deprived of food and things other kids take for granted, such as toys and games, and were allowed to do little except write in journals.
Although the parents filed reports with the state that they home-schooled their children, the oldest child had only completed the third grade, and a 12-year-old couldn't recite the full alphabet.
An investigator testified that some suffered from severe malnutrition and muscle wasting, including an 11-year-old girl who had arms the size of an infant.
The kids were rarely allowed outside, though they went out on Halloween and traveled as a family to Disneyland and Las Vegas, investigators said. The children spent most of their time locked in their rooms except for limited meals or using the bathroom.
All the children were hospitalized immediately after they were discovered. Riverside County authorities then obtained temporary conservatorship over the adults.
Jack Osborn, an attorney who represents the seven adult children in probate court, said they were happy the guilty plea spared them from testifying.
"They are relieved they can now move forward with their lives and not have the specter of a trial hanging over their heads and all the stress that would have caused," Osborn said.
The adult children are all living together, attending school and getting healthy while leading lives similar to their peers. He said they value their privacy.
The social services agency tasked with overseeing the younger children declined to comment on their cases, citing confidentiality laws.
Jessica Borelli, a clinical psychologist and professor of psychological science at University of California, Irvine, said children who suffer such trauma face many challenges, but she has seen people make miraculous recoveries. The guilty pleas from their parents, she said, could help, especially since many abuse survivors struggle with feelings of self-doubt.
"It is a pretty clear affirmation of how they were mistreated," she said. "If there is any part of them that needs validation that how they were treated was wrong and was abuse, this is it."
The degree to which the pleas help will largely depend on the children's perceptions of their situation, including their sense of justice, said Shefali Gandhi, director of clinical services at Childhelp Children's Center of Arizona.
"The plea is the start of their journey to heal, not the end," she said.
The children have not spoken publicly, though they will be allowed to speak at the sentencing if they choose to, Hestrin said.
"I was very taken by their optimism, by their hope for the future, for their future," Hestrin said. "They have a zest for life and huge smiles, and I am optimistic for them — and I think that's how they feel about their future."
Associated Press reporters Amy Taxin, John Antczak and Brian Melley in Los Angeles contributed to this report.