RIVERSIDE (CBSLA/AP) — Prosecutors made their case Wednesday against a Southern California couple suspected of starving and shackling their children in a case that drew worldwide headlines when the parents were arrested last winter.
David and Louise Turpin appeared for a preliminary hearing in Superior Court in Riverside, where a judge weighed whether authorities have amassed enough evidence for a trial.
The couple has pleaded not guilty to torture, child abuse and other charges. They are being held on $12 million bail each.
Louise Turpin wiped away tears as prosecutors played a 911 call from their 17-year-old daughter, who escaped the family’s Perris home in January.
Cameras and recording devices were barred from the courtroom. But in audio played in the courtroom, the 17-year-old girl who escaped sounded nervous and scared as she told 911 her sisters were chained up in the house and were waking up crying all the time. The girl told the dispatcher she broke out to help them because she couldn’t stand to hear and see them crying anymore.
“I can’t breath because of how dirty the house is,” the girl could be heard saying.
One of the first investigators to speak to the girl testified that she told him her sisters had been chained up because they had stolen candy from the kitchen.
The girl eventually revealed to investigators that, although much of their abuse was at the hands of their mother, her father tried to sexually assault one of the girls.
“He pulled her pants down and put her on his lap, then told her not to tell anyone,” the girl said.
As many as six investigators were expected to testify at the hearing, which will determine whether the Turpins will be put on trial. The hearing is expected to last until at least Thursday.
Authorities said their home reeked of human waste, and the evidence of starvation was obvious, with the oldest of 13 siblings weighing just 82 pounds. The children were shackled as punishment, denied food and toys and allowed to do little except write in journals, prosecutors have said.
Investigators described how when the children were rescued, they were caked in dirt and were in soiled clothing, adding they were rarely allowed to bathe.
One girl said she once changed to go out for Mother’s Day, only to return home and be forced to wear the soiled clothes again.
They said the children were isolated from each other and locked in different rooms in small groups. They did not have access to televisions or radios but expressed themselves in the hundreds of journals that investigators seized from the home.
Most of the Turpin children were homeschooled, but one of the older boys was allowed to attend classes at a local college. His mother would drive him there, stay outside in the hallway during the class and then take him back home as soon as the class ended, prosecutors said.
After they were freed from the home, the children, who ranged in age from 2 to 29, were immediately hospitalized and eventually released.
One of the children had liver damage due to malnutrition. Another had a vitamin D deficiency and visible scoliosis, and an 11-year old girl had a body-weight percentile of .01.
The current whereabouts of the children is unknown. A spokeswoman for the county’s social services department declined to discuss the case.
Jack Osborn, an attorney appointed to represent the couple’s seven adult children, said earlier this year they were “doing well.” They have participated in music therapy programs, made crafts and world-famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma held a special concert for them. They communicated with their younger siblings over Skype.
“They’re happy, they are wanting to move forward, they do not want to dwell on the past and they want their identity to be now and going forward the things they hope to do, the dreams they have. They do not want people to think of them only as a possible victim, but as young adults setting off on their lives,” he told the Riverside Press-Enterprise newspaper in February.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)