The pastor and six parishioners at a secretive upstate New York church have been charged with murder after a teenager was beaten to death during what congregants called a “counseling session.”
A grand jury indicted the seven church members Tuesday, charging them with second-degree murder in the death of Lucas Leonard, 19. The members — including an eighth — were also charged with manslaughter, kidnapping and assault.
Lucas Leonard and his brother, Christopher, 17, were punched, kicked and whipped with a four-foot electrical cord during the hours-long beating that began Oct. 11 after a Sunday night service at Word of Life Christian Church near New Hartford, N.Y., Christopher Leonard said last month in court. Lucas Leonard was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. Christopher Leonard was hospitalized with serious injuries.
“It hurt — everywhere,” Christopher Leonard testified in court last month, according to the Associated Press.
The teens’ father, 65-year-old Bruce Leonard, and their their half-sister, 33-year-old Sarah Ferguson, now face second-degree murder and other charges, according to the 13-count indictment.
The pastor, Tiffanie Irwin; her mother, Traci Irwin; her brother, Joseph Irwin; and two other church members, Linda Morey and her son, David Morey, also face murder charges, according to the Associated Press.
Irwin’s other brother, Daniel Irwin, faces charges of manslaughter, kidnapping and assault.
All eight of them are in custody, Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara said.
McNamara said the teens’ mother, Deborah Leonard, will also be charged in the incident.
He said he could not comment further because a judge has issued a gag order in the case.
To many in the community, the church — which inhabits an old, red-brick schoolhouse — has long been a mystery to many of its neighbors.
Some of them told reporters that some outsiders thought the church was a cult, claiming members could be heard chanting or singing during the night, that men in the church roamed around in trench coats and that members were breeding dogs.
Some said the church had become so secluded that when a fire broke out several years ago, members tried to turn away firefighters and opted to beat the blaze themselves.
“We weren’t originally isolated from the community,” an unnamed former church member told CNN, adding that, over time, issues arose between the church and the community that surrounded it. “We put up the hedges.”
The former member did, however, deny reports that the church is a cult, and authorities have said that though they were aware of such accusations, a police investigation had not proven it.
Still, most agree that the incident that transpired there last month was anything but normal.
Authorities said the “counseling session” appeared to have stemmed from Lucas Leonard’s desire to leave the church.
Christopher Leonard said in court that he and his brother stood in the church’s small sanctuary and answered questions. Then, he said, a church member “came over and grabbed the front of my shirt and punched me in the stomach,” according to the Syracuse Post-Standard.
For hours, police said, members continued to beat them.
At one point, Christopher Leonard said, he was taken to another room, put in a corner and told to use earplugs and earmuffs to block out his brother’s beating.
“I don’t know how long I sat there,” he said, according to the newspaper.
When he was brought back into the room where his brother was, he said, he started “moaning” — then collapsed.
“I looked over and saw Luke on the ground,” Christopher Leonard said, according to the Utica Observer-Dispatch. “I rushed over and saw he wasn’t breathing. I was trying to give him CPR.
“Someone went up to find [the pastor] — she was pressing on his chest while I tried to fill up his lungs.”
Lucas Leonard was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Christopher Leonard said he was also driven to a hospital, but then church members took him back to the church.
He said he taken to the building’s second floor where he was given a mattress and a pillow so he could rest.
Authorities later obtained a search warrant and entered the building, where they found Christopher Leonard.
Church members have said the problem was with the Lucas Leonard.
His father claimed the teen was beaten because he had molested a child, police said.
But New Hartford Police Chief Michael Inserra has said that investigators found no evidence that any sexual abuse took place and emphasized that Leonard boys were “the victims in this horrible crime.”
McNamara, the district attorney, said the accused will be held without bail.
This story has been updated.