Cops: Couple Beat Son to Death During 'Spiritual Session' at Church
A couple was arrested for beating their two teenage sons for “their sins,” killing one young man and gravely injuring the other, officials said.
After attending services at the Word of Life Church in New Hartford, New York Sunday, Lucas Leonard, 19, and his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, underwent an hours-long spiritual counseling session that went overnight into Monday at the school-building-turned church, police said.
The church’s pastor, Tiffany Irwin, had called for the session, which was led by the teenagers’ parents, sister and three other churchgoers, Lt. Timothy O'Neill of the New Hartford, N.Y., Police Department told USA TODAY.
“The session turned physical,” New Hartford Police Chief Michael Inserra said during a press conference. “Both brothers were continually subjected to physical punishment over the course of several hours in hopes that each would confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness.”
Relatives brought Lucas Leonard to St. Luke’s Hospital on Monday after they found he wasn’t breathing, Inserra said. He was pronounced dead at the hospital and medical personnel called the cops, reporting a possible gunshot wound, police said.
Law enforcement authorities discovered Christopher Leonard inside the church during their investigation, police said.
He was in serious condition at a local hospital with signs of severe bleeding. Both brothers suffered severe injuries to the lower abdomen, groin, genitals, buttocks, back and shoulders, USA TODAY reported.
Authorities have not yet determined what the Leonards were allegedly repenting for.
The brothers’ parents, Bruce Leonard, 65, and Deborah Leonard, 59, were both charged with one count each of first-degree manslaughter, police said. They pleaded not guilty and were each ordered held on $100,000 bail.
Deborah Leonard's attorney Devin Garramone argued Thursday that his client is a "timid" and "meek" woman who felt helpless when the intervention turned violent, saying the woman "had no idea how far it would be taken," the Associated Press reported.
"It looks like she went along with it, and it spun out of control," he said. "This woman is so meek and timid, she didn't have the temerity to stand up to them and say, 'You're not punishing my kid. You're not doing this.'"
Four other church members, David Morey, 26; Linda Morey, 54; Joseph Irwin, 26; and the victims’ sister, Sarah Ferguson, 33, were charged with one count each of second-degree assault. Each pleaded not guilty and bail was set at $50,000 each, officials said.
Children found by police inside the church building were turned over to Oneida County Child Protective Services, CNN reported.
Contact information for the church could not be located online.
Bruce Leonard’s attorney, Don Gerace, told The Washington Post his client was born and raised in upstate New York. He has worked as a farmer and, more recently, a teaching assistant at a local high school, Gerace said. He has no prior criminal history, Gerace said.
Bruce and Deborah Leonard have been married for more than 20 years and have attended the church for the past eight years, Gerace told The Post.
Residents who lived near the church told Syracuse.com they were disturbed by church goers' behavior that they could observe from outside the building, saying members were often seen milling about in the middle of the night and can be heard singing chants.
Syracuse.com noted that one framed, stitched textile hanging inside the church read: "We have been commissioned through the written word of God to reach out to those who have not experienced the love of Jesus Christ in their lives ... Through the systematic training up of saints, our goal is for them to reach out confidently, sharing the love and compassion of Jesus Christ..."
Police said the investigation is ongoing between the New Hartford Police, the New York State Police and the Oneida County District Attorney’s Office.
“Additional arrests and charges are expected to be made in the following days,” police said.