Eight church members of the Word of Life church in New Hartford, New York, were arrested and charged in the beating of two teenaged boys, one whom died in the assault. The unsealed, 13-count indictment – with charges ranging from kidnapping to murder – accuses the defendants of beating a 19-year-old to death, and severely injuring his 17-year-old brother in some sort of bizarre “spiritual counseling” session at the church.
According to CNN on Nov. 25, parishioners, the church pastor and the father of the boys took part in the beatings. Lucas Leonard, 19, died of his injuries. Investigators said the boys were beaten after they expressed a desire to leave the church; police said the intervention and subsequent beatings went on for nearly 14 hours, and that Lucas had been beaten so badly, emergency room personnel thought he has sustained multiple gunshot wounds.
“He was laying on the ground moaning. I knew something wasn’t right. I rushed over and saw he wasn’t breathing, so I tried to give him CPR,” Lucas’ brother, 17-year-old Christopher Leonard testified. Christopher was treated at the hospital for severe blunt force trauma and released.
A previous report from CNN said an autopsy “showed Lucas suffered multiple contusions from blunt-force trauma to the torso and extremities. A combination of the injuries plus the duration of assault contributed to his death. The beatings included blows to the genital area of the teens.”
A grand jury initially handed down indictments to the parents of Lucas and Christopher, Bruce and Deborah Leonard, for first-degree manslaughter, though the recent charges do not include her Deborah, who reportedly attempted to resuscitate her son. Shortly after the beating death on October 15, police raided the Leonard’s home and found the inside to be in a state of squalor. Multiple neglected animals had to be removed from the home.
Fred Aiken lives just a block away from the church in Oneida County. He told investigators that the group is a cult, and that every night dogs howl from inside the church. “Church members used to build fires on the roofs, and there was chanting and weird rituals,” Aiken said. “Everyone wants to know what was going on in there.”
Church pastor Tiffanie Irwin, 29, her siblings Daniel and Joseph Irwin and their mother, Traci Irwin, were all arrested in connection with the beatings. David Morey, 26, Linda Morey, 54, and Sarah Ferguson, 33, were also arrested for the gang-style beatings.
Investigators said the counseling session began in a back room of the church, while 30 members were allowed to sit and listen. The boys were beaten with a black cord, witnesses said.
According to Christian Today, “most of those indicted in the case remain in jail on bail of tens of thousands of dollars each, while David and Linda Morey have been released on bail of $50,000 each, according to jail records.”
The Word of Life church has since been boarded up.