Animals Rescued from Home of Couple Accused of Beating Son to Death in Church
The upstate New York couple accused of beating their teenage son to death inside their church allegedly left behind a grisly sight in their home, where authorities found dogs, cats and birds living in what they called deplorable conditions.
Photos taken by the local animal advocacy group Justice for Lainey allegedly show the Clayville home of Bruce Leonard, 65, and Deborah Leonard, 59, covered in garbage.
Advocate Kim Strong said she was overcome by the smell of animal urine and feces when she entered the house.
“They were locked in a horrific basement in cages and it was just really, really disgusting,” Strong told INSIDE EDITION.
“When you rescue, you can't have emotions, you have to respond and react and get the animals out of there. It was one of the worst animal situations I have ever been in,” Strong told IE.
The discovery came shortly before Christopher Leonard, 17, who survived the brutal beating that killed his brother, was released from the hospital. He is now readying to testify against his attackers, officials said.
Leonard, 17, was discharged from St. Luke’s Hospital a week after he suffered serious injuries in an alleged 14-hour beating during a so-called spiritual counseling session by six fellow parishioners, including his parents and sister, at the Word of Life Christian Church in New Hartford, law enforcement officials said.
"He's under the supervision of Oneida County Child Protective Services," Lt. Timothy O’Neill with the New Hartford Police Department told IE.
He is set to testify Wednesday at a hearing on assault charges against his sister, Sarah Ferguson, 33, and Joseph Irwin, 26, who was bonded out on Friday, O'Neil said.
Both are accused of participating in the October 11 assault that killed Leonard’s 19-year-old brother, Lucas Leonard.
Authorities said the beating was prompted because the siblings wanted to leave the church.
Before the beating took place, the church’s pastor, Tiffanie Irwin, allegedly made an accusation during that night’s service, saying that someone in the congregation was practicing witchcraft and called for the counseling session, O'Neil said.
"That was brought up by the Pastor, that there was a rumor within the church that someone was practicing witchcraft, voodoo," O'Neil said. "That seed was planted in the (church) service.
Lucas Leonard reportedly said he wanted church elders to die and that he had considered making a voodoo doll of a church leader, according to a statement made by church member Daniel Irwin- Joseph Irwin's brother- that was obtained by The New York Times.
Irwin said the brothers’ father, Bruce Leonard, 65, beat Lucas Leonard with an electrical cord and the beating only stopped at 10 a.m. the next day because “Luke was dead at that point,” the Times reported.
Irwin also said in statements that he was told by another parishioner that Lucas Leonard had admitted to abusing children in the church.
But law enforcement officials have shot that claim down, saying there was no evidence whatsoever that any children were sexually abused and alleged that Bruce Leonard first claimed his son molested children within the congregation.
'You have the father in the hospital waiting room, he kept saying his son was a child molester and he had been violating these children," O'Neil said.
Investigators believe the brothers may have admitted to the allegations lobbed at them, but only to stop the violence.
"We know that these boys were beaten in that counseling session. It's our belief at this time, that they were compelled forcibly to confess to things they didn't do, in hopes of ending the beatings," O'Neil said. "Torture is not really a great way to get confessions... people will confess to anything.
"In this environment within the church, in this counseling session, we believe that any of the allegations that came out of that (were) the young men trying to bring an end to the beatings," O'Neil continued. "Unfortunately, it seems that once you confess (in that scenario), it's time to be punished."
Bruce Leonard and his wife and the boys’ mother, Deborah Leonard, 59, were both charged with one count each of first-degree manslaughter, police said.
Ferguson and three others were charged with one count each of second-degree assault, cops said.
All six have pleaded not guilty. Only Ferguson has not posted bail and remains in custody.
Investigators believe there to be about 40 members of the congregation, O'Neil said. At its height, about 100 people were a part of Life Christian Church, he said.
Law enforcement officials are working to track down former members of the church to get a better understanding of what goes on behind closed doors, as present churchgoers are not as forthcoming as desired.
"They're not talking to us," O'Neil said.
Law enforcement officials are still actively investigating and other arrests are possible, O'Neil said.
"We're looking at anybody and everybody in that congregation who was there that night," he told IE. "This whole thing is sickening (and) it's only going to get worse."