JOSHUA TREE (CBSLA/AP) — The mounds of trash, old toys and furniture caught the attention of a Southern California sheriff’s deputy passing through the desert Thursday. As he approached, he spotted a hovel cobbled together with plywood and plastic sheeting.

And then came the shocking discovery that a couple and their three children — ages 11 to 14 — had been living there for four years without running water, bathrooms or electricity.

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The children’s mother, Mona Kirk, 51, would sleep alongside them in the ramshackle dwelling, which is only about 4 feet high and 10 feet wide, said Cindy Bachman, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department.

Their father, Daniel Panico, 73, slept either in a trailer on the property with dozens of cats or in another vehicle, she said.

“They were scraps of plywood that were put together and then they had a tarp over it to keep out the rain,” Bachman said of the makeshift shelter on the lot near Joshua Tree, about 125 miles east of Los Angeles.

Friends outside a courtroom Friday said the couple were good parents. They described them as poor, not neglectful.

“I don’t think they are guilty of anything, other than being poor,” said Leanna Monroe. “This family is a giving, caring, loving family.”

She added when the kids come over to her place, “they are always happy. They’re well dressed. They’re always polite. They’re very smart. They’re always clean.”

Inside, blankets were strewn everywhere and chairs were used to try to hold up the tarp ceiling. A makeshift kitchen was littered with empty bottles with cans of corn, peas and soup stacked on wooden shelves. Several holes on the property were filled with feces, officials said.

The children didn’t appear to have any obvious injuries and showed no outward signs of malnutrition but were undergoing medical evaluations, Bachman said.

“It was apparent they had not bathed in days,” she said. “There was no running water, no electricity, no bathroom facilities.”

The parents pleaded not guilty Friday to three counts of felony child abuse and were each being held on $300,000 bail. A telephone number listed for the couple in public records was not in service Friday.

“I am wondering why all this is happening,” Panico said during the brief court appearance.

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The children were not enrolled in public school and deputies are still investigating whether they were considered enrolled in a homes chool, but there was no evidence they were being educated, Bachman said.

Deputies believe the family lost their home at some point and has been living on the dirt lot for about four years, Bachman said. Initially, the whole family was living in the trailer and they later built the plywood dwelling, she said.

Temperatures in the desert community regularly reach over 100 degrees during the summer and can drop well below freezing during very windy winter nights.

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“They range from 20-30 degrees at night or even lower depending on the wind chill,” Bachman said. “The temperatures were very cold and they were basically living outdoors. There was no indoors for them.”

Friend Marsha Custodio said the family’s living situation is clearly not ideal.

“I’m not agreeing that this is the perfect situation for them to live in,” Custodio said, “but they are homeless. Where are they supposed to live?”

She said the family never asked for help fearing what happened Thursday — with an arrest — might happen.

“They’re helpless and poor and they need help,” she said. “They don’t need their kids taken away. They need help.”

Investigators do not believe the children were being held captive, like another family, which lived about 60 miles east of Joshua Tree, that made international headlines earlier this year when officials said they had rescued their 13 children.

David and Louise Turpin have pleaded not guilty to torture, abuse and other charges. Prosecutors in neighboring Riverside County said the Turpins tortured their children, keeping them chained to their beds and so malnourished their growth was stunted.

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