The children weren’t allowed to eat. They weren’t allowed to bathe. They couldn’t play with toys that were kept in the closet, still packaged. They couldn’t go outside. They couldn’t escape.
Their depraved parents, prosecutors say, only allowed them to do one thing – they could write.
On Sunday, Riverside County law enforcement discovered 13 siblings – ages 2 to 29 – imprisoned in an unassuming Perris home after a teenage captive escaped through a window and called for help, revealing a crime that has horrified and captivated the nation.
The children’s parents, David and Louise Turpin, now face life in prison for multiple counts of torture, child abuse, false imprisonment and other charges. While describing the case on Thursday, prosecutors revealed the Turpin children’s only freedom was writing in journals, hundreds of which have been recovered by authorities.
Riverside County law enforcement officials are now combing through those journals, which have not been made public. However, District Attorney Mike Hestrin said he believes they will be “very significant” to the coming court case and will provide “strong evidence of what occurred in that home.”
The existence of the diaries has also sparked the interest of academics who research trauma and language. Writing in the journals was, quite possibly, what allowed the children to survive a life of fear, hunger and torture, said James Pennebaker, a renowned expert on using writing to heal from traumatic experiences.
“There is a good chance that being able to write may have kept them sane,” Pennebaker said. “In an interesting way, this may have helped them come to terms with the bizarre world they lived in.”
Pennebaker, a University of Texas-Austin psychology professor who has been following the Perris case from afar, described the child torture as the “most horrific story imaginable.” In an interview on Friday, he wondered aloud why the Turpins would have allowed their children to chronicle their captivity and still kept the journals in the house, basically stockpiling evidence of their crimes.
But Pennbaker said the unlikely fact that these journals do exist creates a unique research tool, which may allow academics to design therapies to help victims of torture, maltreatment and prolonged captivity. The children’s stunted language skills might make the journals hard to decipher, he added, but this challenge would also be valuable in the study of communication barriers and the evolution of language.
From a research perspective, Pennebaker said, the only writings that could even loosely compare to the children’s journals would come from prison inmates or the famous diary of Anne Frank, a Jewish teenager who chronicled her life as she hid from the Nazis during World War II.
“Anne Frank lived in an insane world, but her family life was remarkably normal,” Pennebaker said. “This is the exact opposite.”
Couple accused of chaining children lived in Johnson County, Texas, for years. Footage also shows inside the former home. Courtesy WFAA. Courtesy WFAA
Research into the journals will likely have to wait until the Turpins’ criminal case is resolved, and only if the writings are released to academics, Pennebaker said.
In the meantime, the journals will also have “tremendous value” for the criminal investigation, even though they may not be admissable as evidence in a courtroom, said Laurie Levenson, a criminal law expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
For example, investigators who are attempting to interview the children – a delicate process – could start with the journals, asking about any particular pages that imply abuse, Levenson said. Additionally, if either of the parents were to testify in their own defense, prosecutors could use the journals to cross-examine them. And finally, if any of the children testify, they could use the journals to refresh their memory on witness stand, much like how a police officer reviews their report before they testify about an old crime.
The Turpin children’s journals were revealed Thursday, as prosecutors described the torture case in detail for the first time. Hestrin, the DA, alleged that the Turpins had starved their children to the point of dramatically stunting their growth, and that the children had been beaten and strangled. Sometimes, they were chained for weeks or months at a time as punishment.
None of the children had been to a doctor in more than four years, the DA said. None had ever seen a dentist. They were permitted to shower only once a year.
Hestrin suggested the parents also taunted the children in smaller but still cruel ways – like buying toys or delicious deserts but refusing to let their captives enjoy either.
Criminal charges stemmed from crimes dating back to 2010, Hestrin said, but authorities believe abuse began in Texas, where the Turpin family lived before moving to Riverside County.
“I will tell you as a prosecutor, there are cases that stick with you, they haunt you,” Hestrin said. “Sometimes in this business we are faced with human depravity. That is what we are looking at here.”
David and Louis Turpin pleded not guilty to charges during a brief hearing on Thursday. Their attorneys declined to comment as they left courtroom, saying they were unwilling or not yet ready to discuss the case publicly.