The mounds of trash, old toys and furniture caught the attention of a Southern California sheriff's deputy passing through the desert earlier this week. As he approached, he spotted a hovel cobbled together with plywood and plastic sheeting.
And then came the shocking discovery that a couple and their three children — ages 11 to 14 — had been living there for several years without running water, bathrooms or electricity.
The children's mother, Mona Kirk, 51, would sleep alongside them in the ramshackle dwelling, which is only about 4 feet high and 10 feet wide, said Cindy Bachman, spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department.
Their father, Daniel Panico, 73, slept either in a trailer on the property with dozens of cats or in another vehicle, she said.
"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 on the lot near Joshua Tree, about 125 miles (201 kilometers) east of Los Angeles.
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 children didn't appear to have any obvious injuries and showed no outward signs of malnutrition but were undergoing medical evaluations, Bachman said.
U.S. & World
"It was apparent they had not bathed in days," she said. "There was no running water, no electricity, no bathroom facilities."
Friends and neighbors defended the couple.
"Those kids are well taken care of and their crime is being poor and being homeless. The sheriff's department is punishing this family for being homeless," Marsha Custodio said.
"It's just really sad that it came to this. Their living condition is horrid and horrendous, we all see that, but this is not a situation where they're criminals," Leanna Munroe said.
The parents were arrested Wednesday and have been charged with three counts of felony child abuse, district attorney's office spokesman Christopher Lee said. A telephone number listed for the couple in public records was not in service Friday.
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.
Temperatures in the desert community regularly reach over 100 degrees during the summer and can drop well below freezing during very windy winter nights.
"They range from 20-30 degrees at night or even lower depending on the wind chill," Bachman said. "The temperatures were very cold and they were basically living outdoors. There was no indoors for them."
Investigators do not believe the children were being held captive, like another family — who lived about 60 miles (96.56 kilometers) 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 neighboring Riverside County said the Turpins tortured their children keeping them chained to their beds and so malnourished their growth was stunted.
NBC4 staff also contributed to this report.