Beating victim had wanted to leave the church, members say - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Beating victim had wanted to leave the church, members say

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(AP Photo/Mike Groll). Police knock on the door of the Word of Life church while serving paperwork on a church member, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in New Hartford, N.Y. (AP Photo/Mike Groll). Police knock on the door of the Word of Life church while serving paperwork on a church member, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in New Hartford, N.Y.
(New Hartford Police Department via AP). In this undated photo provided by the New Hartford Police Department in New Hartford, N.Y., Deborah Leonard is shown. She and her husband are charged with the beating death of their son. (New Hartford Police Department via AP). In this undated photo provided by the New Hartford Police Department in New Hartford, N.Y., Deborah Leonard is shown. She and her husband are charged with the beating death of their son.
(New Hartford Police Department via AP). In this undated photo provided by the New Hartford Police Department in New Hartford, N.Y., Bruce Leonard is shown. Leonard and his wife are charged in the beating death of their son. (New Hartford Police Department via AP). In this undated photo provided by the New Hartford Police Department in New Hartford, N.Y., Bruce Leonard is shown. Leonard and his wife are charged in the beating death of their son.

NEW HARTFORD, N.Y. (AP) - The fatal beating of a 19-year-old man inside a 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 the victim's parents, who have been charged with manslaughter 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 Thursday he doesn't believe she caused the fatal injuries.

Meanwhile, the victims' father, Bruce Leonard, said that 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 hearing on whether there was enough evidence for the case to move forward, prosecutors were expected to outline what they believe happened.

Deborah Leonard, 59, gazed down, her long, graying hair hanging in front of her face, as the hearing began with a police officer testifying about photographs he took of Lucas Leonard's bruised body. Bruce Leonard, 65, appeared to glance at the images as they were handed to defense lawyers; his wife didn't look up.

Hearings will be held later for four other church members charged with assault in the case, including the victims' 33-year-old sister, Sarah Ferguson.

All the defendants 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's son, Joseph, is among the defendants. Traci Irwin's late husband, Jerry, founded the church.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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