The two teens who were viciously beaten by their parents and fellow members of the upstate Word of Life Church were being punished for trying to defect, Oneida County prosecutors allege. What started as a “counseling session” to address the boys’ pending defection stretched into a ten-hour beating that ended early Monday morning with the death of Lucas Leonard, 19. His younger brother Christopher, 17, remains in critical condition.
The attorney for Deborah Leonard claimed that the boys were being punished for sexually molesting younger church members. That allegation was quickly dismissed by a New Hartford Police spokesperson as “completely unfounded.”
At the Oneida County courthouse on Friday, prosecutors presented testimony from the initial questioning, in which Leonard admitted to whipping her sons with a “cord” during the “counseling session.” Her husband, Bruce Leonard, is said to have initiated the violence, and their older half-sister joined in.
Following Sunday’s service, he allegedly struck Lucas repeatedly with a belt. Daniel Irwin, 24, son of Word of Life’s late founder, Jerry Irwin, testified that Lucas was clearly dead after the nightlong beating. Irwin claims he carried the teen’s lifeless body outside, as panic set in.
Lucas’s death was first reported after his parents took him to a local hospital on Monday afternoon. A police raid following the hospital visit — complete with snipers and a police tactical team — led to the discovery of the other Leonard boy, hiding on the second floor of the church. The Oneida County district attorney hasn’t confirmed if he’ll be cooperating with the investigation. Both teens suffered injuries to their abdomens, genitals, backs, and thighs.
At a preliminary hearing on Thursday, Bruce Leonard’s attorney dismissed the prosecution’s escape theory, instead citing similar allegations about the boys’ “misbehavior” as the real reason for what he preferred to call the “family event.” Lucas’s accidental death was “not what was intended by my client or, I believe, by the mother of Lucas,” he offered.
Former member Chadwick Handville told the New York Times: “Everybody who’s gone there is a victim of abuse. This was a cult. This was not a church; I don’t care what words they use on the building. The spirit of that place was not freedom.”
Handville’s remarks echo other claims about how the church was viewed in the community. “There was just a really weird vibe about the place,” Adriane Hectus told the Utica Observer-Dispatch. Residents had claimed up to 30 members lived at the compound. The police had been called to it repeatedly.
The elder Leonards were also reportedly subjected to demeaning church practices. Word of Life founder Jerry Irwin, who reportedly liked to use racial slurs in his preaching, was hard on the couple. “They were always on church discipline,” Handville said of the Leonards. “They were always bullied spiritually.” He compared the place to Jonestown.
After Irwin’s death several years back, his wife, Traci Irwin, who went by “Mother,” took leadership of the congregation. The daughter, Tiffanie Irwin, 29, is currently pastor. Authorities claim she called for the counseling session that would result in Lucas Leonard’s death. Tiffanie’s brother Joseph, 26, was among the group charged with second-degree assault.