Veneer of a private school hid a scene of horror for 13 siblings

Louise Anna Turpin, left, and David Allen Turpin, who have been charged with nine counts of torture and child endangerment.

PERRIS, Calif. — The private school had a welcoming name. The principal was scientifically minded. But the Sandcastle Day School was a nightmare for the six students enrolled there.

David A. Turpin created the school inside his nondescript stucco home southeast of Los Angeles. But the only ones enrolled there were the six of his 13 children who were school age. And what took place inside was not teaching but torture, the authorities said, after they raided the house over the weekend and found a horrifying scene of emaciated children chained to furniture. The putrid smell overwhelmed them.

By creating such a school of horrors, Turpin had kept the authorities at bay. His children were never seen by teachers or counselors. Their absences never raised suspicions. On Tuesday, state and local officials were on the defensive as they tried to explain how such things could have occurred in a private school the state had sanctioned.

Advertisement

Turpin, 56, and his wife, Louise A. Turpin, 49, were arrested on nine counts of torture and child endangerment after one of their daughters escaped from the home out a window before dawn and called the police on a deactivated cellphone that only allowed her to dial 911. The girl, 17, showed the police photos to corroborate her story. Once the authorities entered the disheveled home, they found the Turpins’ other 12 children, ages 2 to 29. They were so malnourished that the older ones looked years younger.

“I can’t begin to imagine the pain and suffering that they have endured,” Mayor Michael Vargas of Perris said of the siblings. “This is a very happy and tight, hardworking family community.”

How a family that some described as normal just a few years ago had seemingly unraveled so severely, nobody seemed to know.

In a video posted online, the couple warmly smiled and held hands as they renewed their vows 26 years after their wedding. At the Elvis Chapel in Las Vegas in 2011, David Turpin offered his wife a ring before dancing to “Fools Rush In.” They did so again about five years later, with their children looking on, the girls in plaid dresses and the boys in matching bright ties.

Advertisement

Before Sunday, there was no indication that any authority had ever set foot in the home. Riverside County’s child protective services never received reports of abuse. And the State Department of Education said it had registered the school, but had never been inside.

The case raises questions about whether the state may be too lenient in its approach to home schooling and whether it should have been monitoring David Turpin more closely. In California, almost anyone can open a private school by filing an affidavit with the state. California is one of 14 states that only ask parents to register to create a home school, and in 11 other states, including Texas, parents are not required to submit any documentation at all.

The California Department of Education said it was sickened by the tragedy and was investigating what had occurred. The department registers private schools, but “does not approve, monitor, inspect, or oversee” them, said Bill Ainsworth, a department spokesman.

State Assemblywoman Susan Eggman, D-Stockton, a social worker who teaches at California State University, Sacramento, said that she would support legislation to monitor such schools.

“The state has a responsibility to make sure there is at least an annual inspection,” she said. “If we’re not going to uphold educational standards, then for the love of God the least we can do is uphold health and safety standards. We need to do everything we can for vulnerable minors before it becomes anything this tragic.”

There are more than 3,000 private schools registered with the department, many of which operate out of people’s homes and are created for only a handful of children. While private school instructors must be “capable of teaching,” according to the state, there is no state requirement for a teaching credential or equivalent training for private schools. Schools are expected to comply with local regulations for zoning, health, safety and fire codes. Schools with more than six students can receive some services and money from the state, officials said.

Advertisement

“I wish I could come to you today with information that would explain why this happened,” Capt. Greg Fellows, a spokesman for the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department, said Tuesday.

The parents, both arrested on nine counts of torture and child endangerment, remain in jail. When sheriff’s deputies arrived at the house on Sunday, “the mother was perplexed as to why we were at that residence,” Fellows said.

Sheriff’s deputies had never before been called to the house in Perris, an exurb about 70 miles southeast of Los Angeles, since the Turpin family moved there in 2014. Neither had the Riverside County Department of Public Social Services, said its director, Susan von Zabern. Sunday “was the first opportunity we had to intervene,” she said.

The agency will seek court authorization to provide oversight and care for the children, including the adults if necessary, she added.

The family previously lived in Murrieta, California, and in Texas. Fellows said he had no information on whether the family was religious, as their social media posts indicated.

For now, the seven adults — five women and two men — have been hospitalized at Corona Regional Medical Center, where they are staying together in a secure area, said Mark Uffer, the hospital’s chief executive. He described their condition as stable.

“They’re very friendly, they’re very cooperative, and I believe that they’re hopeful that life will get better for them,” Uffer said. Asked about the conditions in which the siblings were found, he responded, “I’ve never seen this.”

“The way my staff responded, I think they were horrified.”

Sophia Grant, medical director of the child abuse and neglect unit at Riverside University Health System, said that while she could not speak to specifics regarding the underage siblings, treatment for abuse victims would generally require slow feeding, diagnostic exams like CT scans, and long-term psychological assistance.

“You have to imagine that these kids are going to need a lot of support,” she said. “It’s not going to be anything that you go to a few sessions of therapy, and you’re all better.”

The police described the Turpins’ home as filthy, dark and foul-smelling. News crews were stationed outside on Tuesday, as neighbors continued to wrestle with the idea that so many children were being neglected in the one-story, rust-red house with the tiled roof.

Tuesday morning, Kimberly Milligan, 50, who lives across the street, said she had only encountered the Turpins once, when she and her son saw three of the siblings — who they thought were 11 to 14 years old — hanging Christmas lights in 2015.

“We said, ‘Hey, your decorations look really nice.’ And they froze,” she said. “They looked absolutely terrified. They were childlike in the sense that, ‘I’m invisible, you can’t see me.’ That was their only defense mechanism.”

The Milligans tried to reassure the siblings that they were just being friendly, but when their expression did not change, the two backed off, they said. The Christmas lights stayed up until February, Milligan said, and the nativity star in the window remains there to this day. The family’s three Volkswagens remained parked in the driveway on Tuesday, with one of them apparently sporting vanity plates that proclaimed the Turpins’ love for Disneyland.