UTICA, N.Y. (AP) — The mother of two teenagers beaten during a church counseling session pleaded guilty to assault Wednesday in the group attack that killed one son and injured the other.
Deborah Leonard admitted taking part in the all-night beatings at the Word of Life Christian Church in New Hartford, New York. Her plea agreement could require her to testify against her husband, daughter and six other church members and leaders charged in the death of 19-year-old Lucas Leonard and assault on 17-year-old Christopher Leonard.
In Oneida County Court, the mother described striking both her sons in the chest with an extension cord during a session led by pastor Tiffanie Irwin, who she said was viewed as a prophet. Lucas Leonard had indicated he wanted to leave the church, she said.
“I hit them with my open hand and punched them,” Deborah Leonard testified, at times crying.
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She faces five years in prison.
Leonard and her husband, Bruce Leonard, initially were charged with manslaughter following the session that authorities said went on for more than 12 hours in October. Lucas Leonard was so badly injured that hospital staff thought he’d been shot. Both teens were beaten in the torso and genitals.
An Oneida County grand jury upgraded the charges last week against Bruce Leonard and the victims’ half-sister, Sarah Ferguson, to murder, and it added kidnapping, assault and gang assault charges to them and several others.
Also charged were Irwin; her mother, Traci Irwin, and brother Joseph Irwin; and mother and son members Linda and David Morey. The Irwins are all leaders in the insular church. A second brother, Daniel Irwin, was charged with manslaughter, kidnapping and assault.
All have pleaded not guilty and are being held without bail.