'If something happened, at least I died trying': Jordan Turpin describes 'house of horrors' escape

Watch the Diane Sawyer special event, 'Escape From A House Of Horror,' now on Hulu

ByEmily Shapiro, Christina Ng, Tess Scott, Acacia Nunes, and Brian Mezerski ABCNews logo
Saturday, November 20, 2021
Escape From A House Of Horror: A Diane Sawyer Special Event
Escape From A House Of Horror: A Diane Sawyer Special Event

PERRIS, Calif. -- Jordan Turpin quietly climbed up on a windowsill of her parents' home without them knowing and dropped down into the outside world.

The 17-year-old had only been outside a few times in her entire life and she was terrified. Her hands were shaking uncontrollably as she held a deactivated cell phone her parents didn't know she had, but thinking of her siblings chained up inside the house, she worked up the courage to dial 911.

"I was always terrified that if I called the cops or tried to escape, I would get caught, and then I knew I would die if I got caught," Jordan, now 21, told ABC News' Diane Sawyer in an exclusive interview. "But at the end, when I saw all my younger siblings, I knew that's what I had to do."

Sisters Jennifer and Jordan Turpin are seen here during an exclusive interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer for "20/20" airing Nov. 19, 2021.

Watch the Diane Sawyer special event, "Escape From A House Of Horror," on Hulu.

ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer has the exclusive first interviews with children from the Turpin family, found captive in the California "house of horrors" in 2018.

Jordan's bravery that day in January 2018 freed herself and her siblings from a life of horrific abuse and captivity at the hands of their parents, David and Louise Turpin, who are now in prison for beating, shackling and starving 12 of their 13 children.

"That was my only chance," Jordan said. "I think it was us coming so close to death so many times. If something happened to me, at least I died trying."

MORE: Jordan Turpin details making 911 call moments after she escaped Perris 'house of horrors'

In 2018, 17-year-old Jordan Turpin had only been outside a few times in her life. Thinking of her siblings chained back at the house, she dialed 911 on an old cell phone her parents didn't know about.

Jordan and her eldest sibling, Jennifer Turpin, are telling their story for the first time in an exclusive interview with Sawyer. They are the first of any of the Turpin children to share their stories. In their interview, the Turpin daughters described physical abuse and being deprived of food, hygiene, education and health care for years.

"The only word I know to call it is 'hell,'" said Jennifer Turpin, reflecting on the trauma of her childhood.

A young Jennifer Turpin is seen here in this undated family photo. (Jennifer Turpin)

Growing up, Jennifer Turpin attended public school from first to third grade but then her parents took her out. From then on, the parents claimed to be homeschooling their children but weren't in reality. The children were rarely allowed to leave their home when the family lived in Texas and then in California, they said they were never allowed outside without their parents.

"We [weren't] even allowed to stand up. We were supposed to be sitting down all the time," added Jennifer, now 33. "Most of the time we were up at night and then sleeping in the day."

In the family's Perris, California, home that Jordan escaped from, she told investigators she was kept in a bedroom where two little sisters were chained on and off for months. She said she and her siblings lived in filth and that she hadn't bathed in seven months.

Authorities found David and Louise Turpin's California home full of trash during their 2018 search. (Riverside County District Attorney)

Jennifer said for years she and her siblings only ate once a day, primarily peanut butter sandwiches, bologna, a frozen burrito or chips, while their parents ate fast food and other full meals. She said some of the children would try to "steal" food and their parents would beat them or chain them up for it. When rescued, all of the children except for the youngest, a toddler, were severely malnourished, prosecutors said.

An 11-year-old child was so malnourished that her arm circumference was the equivalent of a 4-and-a-half month old baby, investigators said.

Jordan said she hadn't been to a doctor in five years, she said, and had never been to a dentist in her life.

The plan to escape

In 2016, Jordan said she got a hold of one of her parents' old smartphones. It opened up a whole new world she had never seen before, and eventually she discovered Justin Bieber's music videos.

"I don't know where we would be if we didn't watch Justin Bieber," Jordan said. "I started realizing that there is a different whole world out there... I wanted to experience that."

The smartphone became a critical escape for Jordan. She said she watched Bieber's interviews, movies and used it to make little videos to post on social media. One day, she said someone commented on one of her posts to ask why she was always inside and awake at night.

"I did tell him that I didn't really go to school, and I wasn't allowed to go in the backyard or front yard and that I'm always kept inside, and I told him how we eat and how we're not allowed to get out of bed," she said. "He was like, 'This isn't right, you should call the cops' ... I was so happy to hear him say that because I was like, 'I was right. I was right that this situation is bad.'"

SEE ALSO: Turpin children describe 1st experience knowing they were free from 'house of horrors'

Jennifer and Jordan Turpin describe, in an exclusive interview with Diane Sawyer, when they realized for the first time that their imprisonment by their parents was over.

One day, a sibling in the house told their mother she had been watching Bieber's videos. Jordan said her mother came at her and began choking her.

"I thought I was going to die that day," she said. "After that whole day happened, I kept having nightmares that... she was going to kill me."

After that incident, Jordan secretly talked to a couple of her sisters about trying to come up with a plan to escape.

"She was like, 'We need to get out of here,'" Jennifer said. "So I gave her all the advice I knew, all the advice I could."

Jennifer Turpin is seen here during an exclusive interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer for "20/20" on Hulu.

Jordan eventually decided her best option would be to climb out of her bedroom window and call 911.

Jennifer said she tried to draw a map of their neighborhood based on the few times she had been allowed outside. Jordan and another sister tried calling a taxi service to drive them to another state, and then they discussed something Jordan overheard on the rare instances her brother secretly watched the TV show "Cops": Calling 911, and making sure they had proof to back up their claims for police.

"[I told her] get pictures, anything to prove so they can't think you're a teenager looking for attention," Jennifer said.

On Jan. 14, 2018, Jordan realized time was running out. She and Jennifer heard her mother scream that the family was moving to Oklahoma.

"If we went to Oklahoma, there was a big chance that some of us would have died," Jordan said of her severely malnourished and frail siblings.

WATCH | Turpin sisters who escaped 'house of horrors' speak out: 'I thought I was going to die'

Two of the 13 Turpin siblings, who were held captive and tortured by their parents inside a Riverside County home for years before managing to escape in 2018, are speaking publicly for the first time about the horrifying ordeal.

At the time, she said two of her sisters were in chains for stealing their mother's candy. One of them, she said, had been chained up for 15 straight days.

She said she asked her sisters, chained to a bed, for permission to take their photos before doing so, which she did with her brother's old cell phone that she had secretly gotten hold of.

"They said, 'yes,'" Jordan said. "They knew why I was taking pictures, and they knew what it was for, they were letting me."

"The very next day we were moving. It was literally now or never," Jennifer added.

The escape

Jordan said she placed pillows under a blanket to make it look like she was asleep, in case anyone looked into her room. She said she put on some clean clothes, gathered her pre-packed bag and slipped out of the window. Then she ran.

Deputy's body camera shows the makeshift bed Jordan Turpin created before she escaped the family's house on Jan. 14, 2018. (Riverside County District Attorney)

Once outside, Jordan didn't know where to turn. She was standing in the road, she said, because "I didn't even know about the sidewalks."

"I had no idea what direction to go. I was so scared," Jordan continued. "I was trying to dial 911, but I couldn't even get my thumb to press the buttons because I was shaking so bad."

Jordan reached a dispatcher who kept her talking as she wandered the neighborhood. Eventually, the dispatcher helped guide the shaky and confused girl to a stop sign where she could wait for a deputy to arrive.

"I was telling them everything: We don't go to school, we live in filth, how we starve and all this stuff," Jordan said. "Because I had to make sure that if I left, we wouldn't go back."

"[Talking to the dispatcher], I was like, 'I'm scared [my parents] are going to come,'" she continued. "They would just kill me right there, especially if they knew I was on the phone with the police."

Jordan said she was petrified that law enforcement wouldn't believe her.

"I was freaking out because I was, like, 'Wait, are they gonna take me back there?' I was so scared," she said. "I was so nervous because it was -- I've never had a conversation with a stranger before."

MORE: Why Jordan Turpin says Justin Bieber helped inspire her to escape

Jordan Turpin said she was inspired to plan an escape after secretly watching videos of Justin Bieber.

Deputy Anthony Colace was coming to the end of a long and busy graveyard shift when he took the dispatcher's call to assist on a runaway call. Colace said the majority of runaway calls only require taking the child home to their family.

When he arrived, Jordan quickly tried to tell him her life story and then he asked her a critical question: "Do you have pictures of that?"

She showed him the photos of her dirty, shackled sisters, explaining that the chains were punishment for taking food.

"They looked very sad, malnourished, they were very pale. They had bags underneath their eyes," Colace told ABC News. "Once I saw that photo, it really sealed the deal for me."

Colace asked if Jordan was injured, and she asked what "injured" meant. He further explained to ask if she was hurt. She said no. He also asked her if she was on medication and she explained she didn't know what "medication" meant.

On Colace's body cam, Jordan is heard telling him that if her parents found her outside they would kill her. As he's listening to Jordan describe the horrors inside the home, Colace was impressed by her courage. Through his questioning, he could tell she'd had little education.

"I was just thinking how smart and how brave she was," he said. "I asked her what her middle name was and she said 'Elizabeth.' I asked her to spell it. She couldn't spell it."

READ MORE: Turpin children still 'living in squalor' 4 years after 'house of horrors' rescue, despite donations

Jordan said the officer asked her if they went into the house would they see her siblings chained up.

"And I was like, 'If they didn't notice me missing yet. But if they notice me missing, they're going to try to cover that all up,'" she said.

Authorities found dirty children's clothing inside David and Louise Turpin's house. (Riverside County District Attorney)

Colace told her to wait in his cruiser while he called for back-up. Riverside County Sheriff's reinforcements headed to the Turpins' door and knocked for over two minutes before David and Louise Turpen finally opened it.

When Jennifer, who was still inside the home, heard the knocking, she prayed it meant her sister had made it out.

"They said, 'it's the police,' and I'm like, 'Oh, this is it,'" Jennifer said.

The officers, saying they were conducting a welfare check, searched the home, where in one room they found the two young malnourished girls from Jordan's photo with bruised wrists. Within minutes, the deputies found the chains that had just been removed from the girls.

Authorities found chains attached to a children's bed inside David and Louise Turpin's California home during their 2018 search. (Riverside County District Attorney)

In another bedroom, police found a boy with thick chains on his wrists and ankles, tied to a bed railing. He had been there for a month or more, investigators said.

Less than two hours after Jordan climbed out of her bedroom window, David and Louise Turpin were being escorted out of their home in handcuffs. Jordan, still in Colace's car, saw her father being brought out before she turned away.

"I started freaking out," she said. "I didn't know what was going to happen at all."

The aftermath

Police rushed all 13 children to the hospital, where they were treated, given clean clothes, rooms and food. The first thing Jordan said she ate was macaroni and cheese and chicken nuggets.

David and Louise Turpin later pleaded guilty to charges including torture and false imprisonment. In 2019, they were sentenced to 25 years to life.

Wade Walsvick, the lead investigator on the case who helped prosecute the Turpins, said this case was "a culmination of everything I've done for almost 25 years, from torture, physical abuse, mental abuse."

Both Jordan and Jennifer declined to discuss their other siblings, wanting to protect their privacy and making it clear they were only sharing their own experiences. They shared the siblings see each other often.

"It feels at home, being with all of us," Jordan said. "Every time we're together, it's a very special moment, because we always know at the end of the day, we're always gonna have each other."

Jordan received her high school diploma in one year. Her favorite subjects were government, English and math. She is now taking college classes.

Jordan Turpin is seen here during an exclusive interview with ABC News' Diane Sawyer.

Jennifer is working at a local restaurant and is writing Christian pop music she hopes to share with the world. She also dreams of being a published author.

ABC News was there the first time Jordan reunited with that first "stranger" she ever met -- Deputy Anthony Colace -- who responded the day of her escape.

As Colace wiped away tears, Jordan told him she always talks about him.

"I've told all my siblings the story more than once," she told him. "And I'm just so thankful because you saved all of us. Thank you so much."

Colace gave the credit to Jordan, telling her he was glad she took that photo of her sisters in chains.

"Without it, it would've been a very tough decision on what to do next. You get all the recognition and credit," he said. "You did the hard part and you did the scary part."

"I'm just so thankful that it was you," Jordan said. "Because you were so gentle."

Colace replied, "I'm glad it was me, too. I think it was me for a reason."

Jordan said she has hopes for the future, and wants to have "a beautiful house with a handsome husband."

"Maybe a kid someday, a nice car. Graduating college, being a book writer, or a motivational speaker," she said. "When I have kids, I want to make sure I'm in a good place. I have a good job because I wanna give my kids the best life ever."

"I want the last name Turpin to be remembered as a name of strength," Jennifer added. "They are not weak, they're not broken. They've got this."