NEW HARTFORD, N.Y.— The fatal beating of a 19-year-old man inside his church erupted during a counseling session over his desire to leave the fold, members of the insular and highly regimented congregation told police.
Congregants explained that was why the session was called Sunday at the Word of Life Christian Church in this upstate New York town, Police Chief Michael Inserra said Friday.
“We still have not concluded why the session turned so violent,” Inserra said ahead of a court hearing for six people — including the victim’s parents — who have been charged in the attack that left Lucas Leonard dead and his 17-year-old brother Christopher seriously injured.
A neighbor, James Constantine, also said Lucas had talked about moving on and had mentioned he might join the Army.
Police have said church members were trying to get the brothers to confess their sins and seek forgiveness. After hours of being pounded with fists, whipped with cords and kicked, the elder teen died, and his brother was hospitalized.
Their mother, Deborah Leonard, felt helpless to stop an “intervention” that she didn’t expect to become so harsh, said her lawyer, Devin Garramone. He said he doesn’t believe she caused the fatal injuries.
Meanwhile, the victims’ father, Bruce Leonard, said what happened stemmed from a family matter unrelated to the church and that the parents didn’t intend their son’s grave injuries, according to his lawyer, Donald Gerace.
At Friday’s preliminary hearing, prosecutors were expected to outline what they believe happened. They must reveal enough to persuade a judge to allow the case to go forward.
Bruce and Deborah Leonard are charged with manslaughter, while the victims’ 33-year-old sister, Sarah Ferguson, and three other people face assault charges. All have pleaded not guilty.
The roughly 30-year-old Word of Life church once had perhaps 40 or more members but now counts closer to 20, Inserra said. Some live at the church, which occupies a former school in New Hartford, about 50 miles from Syracuse.
To some local residents, it was a strangely secretive church where dogs barked and people were rarely seen coming and going.
The police chief said the congregants kept so much to themselves that they didn’t want to let firefighters in after a blaze several years ago. The members extinguished it themselves.
Devoted to spiritual leader Traci Irwin and pastor Tiffanie Irwin, members often “wait to be told what to do,” Inserra said.
After the attack, the beating victims’ relatives wouldn’t tell officers where to find the injured Christopher Leonard, who ultimately was located on the church’s second floor, the chief said.
The Irwins — Traci is Tiffanie’s mother — haven’t been charged and haven’t commented. Traci Irwin’s late husband, Jerry, founded the church.
Gerace said Word of Life was much like many other churches, holding regular services and Bible study and providing food to the needy.
Associated Press video journalist Ted Shaffrey in New Hartford and AP writer Jennifer Peltz in New York contributed to this report.