Louise Turpin’s sister Teresa Robinette will never forget the moment she heard Louise and her husband David were accused of torturing their 13 children.
Robinette, who currently resides in Tennessee, has chosen to come forward in a new documentary on Oxygen, “The Turpin 13: Family Secrets Exposed,” where she hopes to demystify rumors about her family.
The two-hour special is being hosted by Soledad O’Brien and also features interviews with Robinette’s half-brother Billy Lambert, as well as some of the Turpin’s neighbors, experts in child trauma, and law enforcement from where the Turpins resided.
Authorities, who received a call from the Turpins’ 17-year-old daughter after she escaped the family’s home in Perris, Calif., said the residence stunk of human waste and evidence of starvation was obvious, with the oldest sibling weighing only 82 pounds. The children range in age from 2 to 29.
“I was cleaning house, cooking dinner, doing my routine,” Robinette told Fox News. “And then [our sister] Elizabeth called. She told me to sit down… I looked at the news and I just – I don’t really know how to describe the feeling to you.
“I really felt like I was waiting to wake up. Like I was having a nightmare. For a long time, I kept saying I wanted to wake up. I felt like it wasn’t real… I kept saying, ‘Is this real news?’… Then I just got mad. My next emotion was anger… And I’m still mad.”
Robinette claimed since the news broke earlier this year, she has received hate mail and endured accusations that she must have known what was occurring inside the house of horrors. Robinette said she hopes the documentary will finally dispel that rumor.
“I didn’t want people to think I had something to hide,” said Robinette. “If we didn’t come forward, people would have felt like we knew things and we were attempting to cover them up because I’m her sister… But there’s no way we would have stood for that. That’s why she distanced herself from us.”
Both Louise and David grew up in Princeton, West Virginia, and they married in 1985. Their first child was born when Louise was 20. According to investigators, the Turpins lived in Texas for 17 years and then moved to California in 2010.
Robinette said that while she never witnessed the children being abused, she did wonder why Louise distanced herself from the family over the years.
“I don’t even know if you can say any of us had a relationship with the children,” she explained. “You have to understand, I only met the four oldest children in person. The other children, I only met through video chat.
“I would speak to Louise for hours, but it’s like the kids were never there. As the children grew older, I started questioning Louise about why they didn’t have cell phones so we can stay in touch… Even when we video chat, it would be short, sweet conversations.
“It came to a point when eventually she stopped letting them all come together [for video chats]. She would send a couple ones in, then send them out, and then get a couple more to come in. It got really strange. Then she would just start making up excuses of why she couldn’t video chat. She would say, ‘David and I are just so busy with 13 kids, we will get to it this weekend.’ And then it just never happened. Then seven to eight years passed, and we didn’t video chat or anything.”
Robinette said that the last time she saw Louise was around 1997-1998 before she started distancing herself from the family.
“Louise would just go into a hole and just disappear,” said Robinette. “She would cut herself off from us – from everybody in the family. And she would do that for what felt like forever. And then one day she would randomly call [the family]… The visits stopped.”
Robinette said her final interaction with the children before the arrest was sometime between 2009-2010. She claimed it was the the same time her sister, who grew up in a religious household with a preacher for a father, announced she was walking away from the church.
“Investigators have said all of this started in 2010,” she explained. “And that hit me really hard. I know that’s when things started changing with her behavior. And the whole time, she would send me pictures of one of the children, the youngest child.
“I would ask her why I wouldn’t get photos of the other kids. She never gave me a reason. She would just beat around the bush about everything – video chatting, pictures. But never in a million years had we thought she was abusing the kids.”
Robinette revealed how growing up, Louise was “a good girl all her life” who never drank, did drugs or smoked.
“I had never heard Louise cuss unless she was really, really mad,” she recalled.
Robinette said she’s unsure why Louise cut ties with the church. However, she insisted her sibling and husband David were looking for a new religion.
“All I know is that she told me she had been hurt by people in the church,” Robinette explained. “She and David – they were tired of the church. They were going to look into some other religion. I know for a moment they were into Mormonism… She talked about looking into witchcraft and laughing about it… I warned her I would never go near that stuff.
“She thought it was funny… In our minds, we just felt she got far away from God. We are not perfect. We don’t go to church every Sunday. But we do feel God. We do know him… But every single thing that we saw, all the changes in Louise, not one of those things ever, ever entered in our minds that it had anything to do with the kids whatsoever.”
Robinette claimed she and her half-brother attempted to make plans over the years to visit Louise in California and get to know the children better. However, those plans were always abruptly canceled by Louise.
Robinette added, “[Louise] would always come up with an excuse that something happened, that she had a bad dream about the flight, one of the kids got sick. She made up a big elaborate story about one of the girls who got into trouble with some friends one night, so she and David were aggravated… Everything she told us was a lie.”
David and Louise are being held in prison, each on $12 million bail. They face up to life in prison after being charged with torture and child abuse.
The case sparked national attention as details of the abuse came to light.
Prosecutors alleged the children were subjected to “frequent beatings” and “even strangulation,” and weren’t allowed to be unshackled to go to the bathroom. They also allegedly were allowed to take only one shower a year.
The siblings also lacked common knowledge such as knowing what medication was or who a police officer is.
Robinette said Louise has attempted to contact her several times since the arrest.
“I was really hoping she wouldn’t because I wasn’t planning on talking to her,” said Robinette. “… I’m still pretty mad. But I did accept one collect call from her. She called about a month ago. I did speak with her on the phone, but I just told her what I wanted to say. She’s tried to call me several times since then. I have not accepted them because I’m not paying to talk to her. I only wanted to pay for what I had to say to her.”
Robinette is more focused on reconnecting with the children and has spoken to them on the phone.
“I’m having some shirts made for them,” she said. “… My brother and I wanted to adopt [them]. We still want to, but don’t know if we can. I guess there are state requirements and you’ve got to have a certain income… But we really want to.
“We’re going to try. We’re going to visit all we can and try to talk to them. We want to have the best relationship that we can with them. We already told them that we love them and we’re here for them… I would like to plan a trip and see them when my kids are out of school.”
Jack Osborn, whose law firm is representing the seven adult Turpin children, announced in late February they are now enjoying popular movies, food and modern technology. People Magazine also reported star cellist Yo-Yo Ma performed an exclusive concert for the siblings.
“They’re doing great,” said Robinette. “They’re OK. For what they’ve been through, they’re doing well. They’re happy. As for me? I’m OK as long as they’re OK.”
“The Turpin 13: Family Secrets Exposed” airs Saturday at 6 p.m. on Oxygen. The Associated Press contributed to this report.