Two Southern California parents were arrested for suspicion of child cruelty after deputies found their three children living in a squalid desert shack without running water, bathrooms or electricity, sheriff’s officials said Friday.
A San Bernardino County sheriff’s deputy was on patrol near Joshua Tree, about 200 kilometres east of Los Angeles, when he spotted a ramshackle shelter on a dirt lot that was littered with mounds of trash, old children’s toys and furniture.
Investigators believe three siblings – between 11 and 14 years old – had been living in the makeshift shelter that was cobbled together with plywood and plastic sheeting for several years.
The children’s mother, Mona Kirk, 51, would sleep alongside the children in the ramshackle dwelling, which is only about 4 feet high and 10 feet wide, said Cindy Bachman, a sheriff’s department spokeswoman.
“They were scraps of plywood that were put together and then they had a tarp over it to keep out the rain,” Bachman said of the makeshift shelter.
Inside, blankets were strewn everywhere and chairs were used to try to hold up the tarp ceiling. A makeshift kitchen was littered with empty bottles with cans of corn, peas and soup stacked on wooden shelves. Several holes on the property were filled with feces, officials said.
The father of the children, Daniel Panico, 73, would sleep either in a trailer on the property with dozens of cats or in another vehicle, Bachman said.
A telephone number listed for the couple in public records was not in service Friday.
WATCH: Video coverage of the California parents who held their children captive
The children didn’t appear to have any obvious injuries and showed no outward signs of malnutrition but were undergoing medical evaluations, Bachman said.
“It was apparent they had not bathed in days,” she said. “There was no running water, no electricity, no bathroom facilities.”
The children were not enrolled in public school and deputies are still investigating whether they were considered enrolled in a homeschool, but there was no evidence they were being educated, Bachman said.
Deputies believe the family lost their home at some point and has been living on the dirt lot for about four years, Bachman said. Initially, the whole family was living in the trailer and they later built the plywood dwelling, she said.
Investigators do not believe the children were being held captive, like another family – who lived about 96 kilometres east of Joshua Tree – that made international headlines earlier this year when officials said they had rescued their 13 children.
David and Louise Turpin have pleaded not guilty to torture, abuse and other charges. Prosecutors in neighbouring Riverside County said the Turpins tortured their children keeping them chained to their beds and so malnourished their growth was stunted.