Bruce Leonard, 65, and Deborah Leonard, 59, severely beat their two sons Lucas, 19, and Christopher, 17, over the course of more than 10 hours with an electric cord during a family counseling session inside the “sanctuary room” at New York’s Word Of Life Church in an attempt to get the teenagers to confess to their sins and apologize. Lucas died of his injuries that included “multiple contusions” of the torso and extremities. Christopher remains in serious condition.
Bruce and Deborah were arrested and charged with first-degree manslaughter in Lucas’ death. Their bail was set at $100,000 each. Four others – Sarah Ferguson, 33, Lucas’ sister, and church members Linda Morey, 54, David Morey, 26, and Joseph Irwin, 26, were arrested on charges of second degree assault on Christopher. They are being held in lieu of $50,000 each.
New Hartford Police Chief Michael Inserra told reporters:
“A counseling session was held at the Word of Life Church after services Sunday night [October 11] for Lucas Leonard and Christopher Leonard. The counseling session eventually turned violent. The brothers were beaten for hours, with church members using fists and feet to assault them. They were beaten in the hopes that each would confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness. We have not determined what the punishment was for at this point.”
Deborah’s lawyer argued that Lucas and Christopher were initially confronted because they were suspected of “touching some of the other children” in the secretive church that the family belongs to. But the police spokesman, Lt. Timothy O’Neill of the New Hartford Police Department, said the Oneida County Child Advocacy Center had thoroughly investigated suggestions of sexual abuse by the teenagers and deemed them “completely unfounded”.
According to New York Times:
On Sunday night, toward the end of a daylong church service, Tiffanie Irwin, the pastor at Word of Life Christian Church, turned to her congregation and said that Lucas Leonard, whose family was immersed in Word of Life’s secretive practices, was practicing witchcraft, wanted church elders to die and had considered making a voodoo doll of a church leader.
The police, however, said that the beatings had grown out of concerns that Lucas wanted to leave the church. A neighbor, James Constantine, also said Lucas had talked about moving on and had mentioned he might join the Army.
“We’re not alleging they intended to kill their son. We’re just alleging they were trying to seriously hurt their son, and ultimately he died from those injuries,” Scott D. McNamara, the Oneida County district attorney, said at a news conference.
A former Parishioner, Chadwick Handville, told The New York Times that the founder and longtime pastor at Word of Life Church, a reclusive sect infamous for being emotionally manipulative and cult like, shamed congregants from the pulpit, dredging up old sins and recounting them at Sunday services.
“He demanded they redo the floors and fix the plumbing in his living quarters, day after day for hours, until were sleep-deprived. Members who raised questions were put on church discipline and sometimes forbidden to speak to others.”
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