true crime

Repost: Elizabeth Smart thinks the Turpin kids can go on to have “wonderful lives”…

Here’s a repost from January 19, 2018 about the Turpin case. I am reposting it because I just wrote about Diane Sawyer’s 20/20 interview of Jennifer and Jordan Turpin.

The Turpins in court.

Far be it for me to minimize the hell Elizabeth Smart endured for nine months when she was a teenager kidnapped by Brian David Mitchell and Wanda Barzee.  I’ve read the books and seen the movies and I know Elizabeth Smart has survived a nightmare.  I marvel at her apparent recovery.   However, I was a bit taken aback when I read Smart’s comments in a recent article published by People Magazine.  Based on Elizabeth Smart’s comments in that article, I’m left with the impression that she thinks she’s the authority on survival.  (Edited to add: I have changed my mind about Elizabeth Smart’s comments after having seen the 20/20 interview. I am astonished by how bright and resilient Jennifer and Jordan Turpin are. I loved hearing them talk about their futures, and I especially loved seeing Jordan reunite with the deputy who rescued her and her siblings.)

In case you missed it, a few days ago, California authorities found the thirteen children of David and Louise Turpin living in a filthy house.  Some of the children were chained to furniture.  Oh… and they weren’t all children, either.  Their ages ranged from two to 29 years old.  However, the adult children were so malnourished that they looked younger than their ages. (ETA: Almost four years later, Jennifer and Jordan are still very tiny and look younger than their ages. Jordan could pass for 14 or 15, and she’s now 21.)

I’ve been reading up about this bizarre case.  Every day, more information comes out about this family that hid from authorities in Texas and California.  David Turpin, age 56, and Louise Turpin, age 49, apparently have a fixation with Disney, Vegas, and Dr. Seuss.  I’ve seen pictures of Mrs. Turpin dressed like Snow White.  I’ve looked at photos of their vehicles outfitted with vanity plates indicating how much they like Disney as well as family snapshots from Disneyland.  The Turpins visited Las Vegas at least twice to renew their wedding vows, their huge brood in tow.

And yet, for all of their apparent love of the fantastic perfection that is all things Disney, this family lived in several homes that they eventually reduced to squalor.  Last night, I read an account from a woman named Ashely Vinyard, who used to play with three of the Turpin kids, Jennifer, Josh, and Jessica, when they lived in Texas.  She reported that after the family moved away, she and her mother went snooping and found two dogs, a kitten, and a “dumpster smelling of death” at the house, which was littered with feces, dirty diapers, and religious literature.  

Another former neighbor reported that just before the Turpins disappeared from Texas, one of the daughters was spotted walking down the road.  The lady picked her up and the Turpin daughter allegedly asked how to get a driver’s license and a job.  She didn’t know who the President of the United States was.  Actually, it surprises me that no one called the authorities at that point.  But then, they were in Texas, where people tend to leave each other alone… unless they happen to be pregnant and hoping to get an abortion.

Although David Turpin is a graduate of Virginia Tech and once worked as a computer engineer for Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, the family had serious financial problems. They lost their house in Texas to foreclosure and had to move. Billy Baldwin, the man who bought the house they’d lived in, had to spend about $30,000 just to make it livable.

These kids were living like this for years and years; seven of them are now legal adults, yet they were forced to remain in the disgusting home, tied up or shackled to their beds. They hid in plain sight, since the Turpins listed their home as a private school. Turpin’s parents in West Virginia stated that the family is deeply religious, and the children were required to memorize long passages from the Bible. Thanks to little government oversight of homeschooling in Perris, California, no authorities were ever in contact with the Turpin kids. In fact, it was rare that anyone ever even saw the kids. When they were spotted, the children acted as if they were terrified.

The Turpin kids were found on January 14th, when a seventeen year old daughter escaped through a window and called 911 on a deactivated cell phone. Mrs. Turpin was reportedly “perplexed” when the police arrived. Yesterday, they were charged with torture, child endangerment, and false imprisonment. Mr. and Mrs. Turpin have pleaded not guilty to the charges. That seventeen year old girl is a hero.

All of this brings me to the comments made by Elizabeth Smart, who offers a ray of sunshine to the Turpin kids. She told ABC News, “I would want them to know that they survived, they did it, and that life is not as dark and terrible as it has been… That there is happiness in the future, and that they can go on to have wonderful lives.”


Perhaps there is truth in what Elizabeth Smart says. Seven of the kids are now adults and they have been rescued; the youngest one is two years old and might be too young to remember much about what’s happened. They are getting some help, at least in the immediate timeframe.

However, I would submit that while Elizabeth Smart is herself a survivor of something horrendous, she has some things going for her that the Turpin kids don’t.  For one thing, Ms. Smart has loving parents who are comparatively wealthy.  She has the backing of a huge, powerful church.  She has even managed to parlay her experience into a career after attending college as a music major.  Moreover, while what Elizabeth Smart went through was horrible, the actual experience lasted nine months.  The Turpin kids have endured many years of abuse and neglect.  It’s going to be a tremendous project for them to overcome what they’ve endured.

Don’t get me wrong.  I love that Elizabeth Smart has apparently recovered so well.  I am especially glad she’s turned her experience into something that will help other people.  I also hope her prediction for the Turpin kids will ultimately come true.  However, I do think the Turpin kids’ challenges are formidable… much more so than Elizabeth Smart’s were.  There is no telling how much physical and psychological damage was done to these kids.  They are not prepared to simply pick up their lives and move on the way Elizabeth was eventually able to do.  They’re going to need a lot of help, and probably a lot of therapy, to have some semblance of normalcy.  They will need support that, given the way our current government is, may not be forthcoming. (ETA: Sadly, based on the interview, it sounds like my predictions about the government’s help was prescient.)

I’m sure if I pressed Ms. Smart on what she said, she might backpedal a little.  Or maybe not.  Maybe she would insist that her comments about the Turpin kids are as true as her evident belief in Mormonism.

I think it’s appropriate to have hope for these kids.  I also think that realism is in order.  Perhaps one bright spot is that Louise Turpin’s siblings have spoken out and they may be in a position to help these kids recover.  Of course, they are strangers to the kids, since David and Louise Turpin refused to let them visit.  But they are still family and hopefully, they will be able to step up for them and help them assimilate into the world.  It will be interesting to see what happens in this case.  I’ll be watching.

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