A statement made to authorities suggests church members may have been unsettled by Lucas Leonard’s admission of practicing witchcraft.

Share story

NEW HARTFORD, N.Y. — On Sunday night, toward the end of a daylong church service, Tiffanie Irwin, the pastor at Word of Life Church, turned to her congregation and made a stunning accusation.

Someone among them, she said, was practicing witchcraft.

Lucas Leonard, 19, whose family was immersed in Word of Life’s secretive practices, said that he was the one, that he wanted church elders to die and that he had considered making a voodoo doll of one church leader.

Those revelations were some of what one member of the church, Daniel Irwin, told investigators after Leonard was beaten to death by a group of fellow congregants — including Leonard’s parents and half-sister — during a so-called counseling session that began Sunday night and stretched into Monday.

The account of Irwin, 24, a Word of Life deacon whose family leads the church, provided the latest possible explanation of what had precipitated the attack. Leonard’s younger brother, Christopher, 17, was also beaten for hours, but survived. He remained hospitalized Friday.

The police repeated Friday that the beatings had grown out of concerns that Lucas Leonard wanted to leave the church. Police have also rejected assertions that Lucas Leonard had been punished for molesting children who also belonged to Word of Life, a reclusive sect whose unusual activities in a former schoolhouse had long puzzled New Hartford residents.

A statement made by Irwin to authorities that had not been made public, but was reviewed by The New York Times, suggests church members may have been unsettled by Lucas Leonard’s open admission of practicing witchcraft. Irwin was also a central witness as county prosecutors presented evidence during a preliminary hearing Friday.

Sitting on the witness stand chewing gum, Irwin recalled seeing Leonard’s father, Bruce, beating Lucas Leonard with an electrical cord. The attack, in a sanctuary at the rear of the church, ended when it did — at 10 a.m. the following day — because, Irwin said, “Luke was dead at that point.”

Bruce Leonard, 65, and his wife, Deborah Leonard, 59, were in court a few feet from Irwin on Friday. Both have been charged with first-degree manslaughter; neither looked at Irwin during his testimony.

Four other church members, including Sarah Ferguson, the brothers’ half-sister, and Joseph Irwin, who is Daniel Irwin’s older brother and also a deacon in the church, have been charged with assault. All six were in court Friday, including two other congregants, David Morey and Linda Morey, who have been released on bail.

Daniel Irwin said he was not involved in the beatings. The last time he saw Lucas Leonard conscious, he said, was after dawn, and his injuries had become more severe. He was on the floor on the main sanctuary, but “alert enough to answer questions.”

“I remember that he was rolling himself back and forth on the floor, and making a sustained, monotone moan,” Irwin said.

Though Daniel Irwin testified that he had never sat through an entire counseling session, he said it was not typical for violence to take place during such events.