The attack at Word of Life Church left Lucas Leonard, 19, dead, and Christopher Leonard, 17, seriously injured.
CLAYVILLE, N.Y. — The pastor of a secretive church in central New York was holding a meeting to address concerns that a young congregant wanted to defect when other church members began to beat him in an attack that eventually stretched over 10 hours, a prosecutor said Thursday.
The congregant, Lucas Leonard, 19, later died, and his younger brother, Christopher Leonard, 17, remained hospitalized Thursday with serious injuries inflicted during the beating, which, authorities said, started after Sunday services and lasted until early Monday. The brothers’ parents were charged with manslaughter in the death. Four other adults, including the victims’ half-sister, are charged with assault in the younger brother’s beating.
A police spokesman said counseling sessions like the one that preceded Lucas Leonard’s death were routine at Word of Life Church in New Hartford and were meant to deal with questions about adherents’ spiritual standing. The spokesman said investigators had no indication the sessions had led to beatings before.
Defense lawyers for the brothers’ parents, Bruce Leonard, 65, and Deborah Leonard, 59, offered a different account of the meeting, describing it as a family gathering to discuss the brothers’ behavior toward relatives and church members. A lawyer for Deborah Leonard, Devin Garramone, said, “It had something to do with the boys maybe touching some of the other children in the church.”
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But the police spokesman, Lt. Timothy O’Neill of the New Hartford Police Department, said the Oneida County Child Advocacy Center had thoroughly investigated suggestions of sexual abuse by the two and deemed them “completely unfounded.” The advocacy center conducted interviews and medical examinations, O’Neill said, adding, “There’s been no evidence whatsoever to suggest there was any molestation committed by either of these young men.”
Interviews with investigators and defense lawyers yielded a portrait of a controlling church whose members sought to handle any problems internally. The roughly 30-year-old church once had perhaps 40 members but now counts closer to 20, and some members live at the church.
The meeting was orchestrated by the pastor, Tiffanie Irwin, 29, who called the brothers into a sanctuary of the church’s three-story former schoolhouse, authorities said. Her mother, Traci Irwin, is the congregation’s spiritual leader, and congregants call her Mother.
The beating began around 9 p.m. Sunday and lasted until roughly 7 a.m. Monday, the prosecutor, District Attorney Scott McNamara of Oneida County, said Thursday. The two were punched and kicked in their stomachs, genitals, backs and thighs.
Garramone said the brothers had also been beaten with a folded-over electrical cord. He said his client, Deborah Leonard, had been helpless to stop the violence, as congregants in thrall to church leaders watched as the brothers were beaten.
“They were being confronted to confess their sins and to repent,” Garramone said, referring to what he said was the leaders’ belief that the brothers had touched others inappropriately.
He said Deborah Leonard had failed to speak up but did not inflict injuries that caused her son’s death. “What started as some mild flogging spun out of control into something much more violent,” Garramone said.
O’Neill said church members had not been forthcoming about what had happened. Tiffanie Irwin met with investigators but declined to make a statement, he said. Her mother did make a statement, he said.
At a hearing scheduled for Friday, prosecutors are expected to present more evidence related to the manslaughter charges filed against the parents. Four church members, including the brothers’ half-sister, Sarah Ferguson, 33, were also charged with assault for beating the younger brother. The parents have pleaded not guilty to manslaughter, and the others have pleaded not guilty to assault.
A lawyer for Bruce Leonard, Donald Gerace, denied the meeting was called over concerns that one of the brothers had threatened to leave the church. Gerace also said the beating had not lasted 10 hours.
Gerace said the church was a traditional place of worship that held services, Bible study sessions and outreach for disadvantaged people. Lucas’ parents, he said, drove their son to the hospital when “they realized he was in distress.” He added that the serious injuries were “not what was intended by my client or, I believe, by the mother of Lucas.”