The pastor of an Upstate New York church was sentenced to 12 years behind bars after allegedly calling a counseling session during which two brothers were savagely beaten, ultimately causing the death of one the teens and the hospitalization of the other, authorities said.
Tiffanie Irwin, the 30-year-old pastor of the Word of Life Christian Church in Chadwicks, had entered an Alford plea to first-degree manslaughter and second-degree assault in the October 2015 death of Lucas Leonard, 19, and the severe attack on his 18-year-old brother, Christopher Leonard.
“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,” New Hartford Police Chief Michael Inserra said at the time.
But Irwin on Monday attempted to withdraw her plea, which admitted no wrongdoing, saying she wanted “a fair judge and a fair jury,” The Rome Sentinel reported.
She claimed she was “forced to plea” by Judge Michael Dwyer and District Attorney Scott McNamara, who reportedly stipulated that Irwin’s co-defendants in the case could only plead guilty if she went along.
“I am deeply sorry about what happened to Luke and Christopher,” Irwin said, but said she was “shocked” by the attacks, which she called a “spontaneous event.”
Dwyer rejected her motion, saying she had not established any legal reason to withdraw her plea, The Utica Observer-Dispatch reported.
“I think you’ve demonstrated to everybody that your statement of remorse is just that: a statement,” he said. “There’s no feeling attached to it. That’s my opinion.”
McNamara said Irwin actions illustrated “how manipulative she is.”
"[Irwin] dropped the bomb," McNamara said. "She caused the explosion and as with any group leader, they can get people to do stuff without giving the exact order.”
Irwin reportedly told her “authoritarian” church that she could communicate with God and used mind control to lead the congregation, as well as the counseling session that turned into a 12-hour beating between October 11 and October 12.
The attack came at the hands of their family and fellow parishioners after Lucas Leonard said he wanted to leave the church, his mother Deborah Leonard testified to in December 2015.
“I hit them with my open hand and punched them,” Deborah Leonard said in court, testifying against her husband, daughter and six other church members charged in her children’s death and assault.
Her testimony was part of a plea deal that brought the lesser charge of assault rather than manslaughter.
After finding that Lucas Leonard was not breathing, relatives brought him to St. Luke’s Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Hospital staff initially thought his injuries to be the result of a possible gunshot wound since they were so severe, police said.
Irwin's brother, Joseph Irwin, was also sentenced Monday to eight years in prison on charges of first-degree gang assault and second-degree assault.
“I loved Luke like a brother,” Joseph Irwin said at his sentencing, breaking down in tears as he apologized to the victims’ sister, Kristel Leonard Lindsey, who had left the church before her brothers. “He was one of my only friends in this world and now he’s gone … I’m sorry I didn’t stop it that day and I’ll have to live with that for the rest of my life.”
Speaking on Monday before sentences were handed out, Lindsey said: “Without a doubt, Tiffanie had absolute authority over the disorderly rage that ended with Luke's death. I spent several years under her personal control. What she did between October 11 and 12, 2015, has given new meaning to the expression, 'Even the devil comes as an angel of light.' I am disgusted that I ever accepted Tiffanie to be my pastor, my spiritual leader."
Calling Irwin’s brother Joseph the church’s “enforcer," Lindsey asked the court that he be prohibited from ever seeing her or her family again.
Tiffanie Irwin’s attorney, Kurt Schultz, reportedly said he is now under a “self-imposed gag order” as he works on appealing Dwyer’s decision to take his client’s case to trial.
In addition to Tiffanie and Joseph Irwin, seven individuals were charged in connection to the incident.
Irwin’s mother, Traci Irwin, earlier this month pleaded guilty to two counts of unlawful imprisonment in the first degree and was sentenced to one year for each count. She will likely be released in early 2017 because she has already spent time behind bars.
Her other brother, Daniel Irwin, pleaded guilty to two counts of unlawful imprisonment. He was sentenced on Friday to two years in jail.
The victims’ mother, Deborah Leonard, last year pleaded guilty to assault charges and will spend five years in state prison. Their father, Bruce Leonard, pleaded guilty to assault charges earlier this year and faces 15-16 years in prison.
The victims’ half-sister, Sarah Ferguson, was convicted of manslaughter and was sentenced in October to 25 years in prison.
Two others, Linda Morey, 54, and her son David Morey, 26, both pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree assault and will be sentenced on January 9.