Utica, New York — A 19-year-old man was beaten to death and his 17-year-old brother was badly injured during beatings that took place in October 2015 at the Word of Life Christian Church in New Hartford in the upstate New York county of Oneida.
The brothers, Lucas Leonard (the deceased) and Christopher Leonard, were brutally beaten in the converted school building that housed the church and included living space for its leaders. The beatings took place over a 14-hour period and were part of what authorities say was a type of “counseling session.”
Detectives report that the beatings were sparked when the brothers expressed a desire to leave the small tight-knit congregation. They were forced to undergo the counseling session where 9 members of the congregation repeatedly beat and whipped them around their torsos and genitals.
The church is being called “secretive” and the beatings labeled “a torture session” by the Daily Mail and other news outlets.
Among the attackers were the two victims’ parents and half-sister, as well as the female pastor’s mother.
The injured 17-year-old survived. He later testified that following an eight-hour Sunday service, Pastor Tiffanie Irwin asked his family and other members to stay behind for a “meeting.”
During the next 14 hours as part of what became an all-night torture session, he and his brother were repeatedly struck in their torsos and genitals with an electrical cord.
Following the incident, members of the church took the victim’s bloody body to a hospital. The injuries were so severe that doctors thought he had been shot and notified police. Authorities found the deceased’s seriously injured brother at the church.
Nine church members were eventually charged with various crimes related to the beatings.
The victims’ half-sister, Sarah Ferguson — who subsequently claimed that the victims’ parents, Deborah and Bruce Leonard, had molested her children — was the only defendant to decline a plea deal. She was convicted of manslaughter and assault and sentenced in September to 25 years in prison.
The victims’ parents pled guilty to assault. Church deacon Daniel Irwin and the pastor’s mother, Traci Irwin, pled guilty to counts of “unlawful imprisonment” of the victims.
A court hearing was held October 21, 2016, in Utica, the county seat for Oneida, for the four remaining defendants: Pastor Tiffanie Irwin, her brother Joseph Irwin, and church members Linda Morey and her son David Morey.
The female pastor pled guilty to manslaughter, and the three others pled guilty to assault for assisting in the beatings.
During the trial, the judge pushed for one of the attackers to admit his guilt for the crimes: “You’ve heard the others admit their responsibility,” Judge Michael Dwyer said to the pastor’s brother, Joseph Irwin.
But Irwin largely denied his role, responding to the judge, “I didn’t hold them.”
“I pushed Christopher to the floor before they had whipped them, but I didn’t stay. . . . I wasn’t there. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”
As he spoke, a woman yelled that he was a liar and was removed from the Utica courtroom. Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara called the case “a terrible tragedy” and said,
“I can only hope that Luke can rest in peace [and] Chris can get on with his life.”
The remaining defendants will be sentenced in December 2016 and January 2017.