Photo by Tina Russell Utica Observer-Dispatch.
This story originally aired on WAMC Northeast Public Radio.
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New Hartford police say the “counseling sessions” at the Word of Life church that ended in the beating death last week of 19–year-old Lucas Leonard, may have stemmed from the victim’s desire to leave the secretive church. Leonard and his 17- year-old brother Christopher suffered extensive injuries to the torso, back, legs and genitals. Their parents Bruce and Deborah Leonard have been charged with manslaughter, and four other church members including Lucas Leonard’s half sister, have been charged with assault. On Friday they all appeared in New Hartford town court.
Our story comes from David Chanatry with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.
Shackled, handcuffed and wearing orange prison jumpsuits, defendants Bruce and Deborah Leonard entered a small courtroom packed with a standing room only crowd. For the next three hours they heard testimony from four police officers investigating the crime, and a dramatic eyewitness account from church member Daniel Irwin.
Irwin told the court that after an all-day service on Sunday, an all night “counseling session” was held in the church sanctuary with members of the Leonard family, and led by his sister Pastor Tiffanie. Irwin testified he saw Bruce Leonard strike his son Lucas multiple times in the back with what looked like a belt. He said he saw Bruce also strike his 17-year-old son Christopher Leonard as many as half a dozen times. From an adjacent room he heard more blows, he said, a strike, then wait a second, then strike again.
Irwin said he had gone to another part of the church building—an old public school-, but he repeatedly came back to see what was going on. The last time, he said Lucas was “rolling back and forth on the floor and making a sustained monotone moan.” Irwin saw blood on the carpet, he said, and dried blood on the back of Lucas Leonard’s leg.
Irwin testified he was in the residence when David Morey and Joseph Irwin—both charged with assault—came to him in a panic and said Luke was dead. When he got back to the sanctuary he saw Bruce Leonard attempting to revive his son with mouth–to-mouth resuscitation. After about 10 minutes, Daniel Irwin said, Bruce Leonard said they should take Lucas to the hospital. Nobody called 911.
Irwin said the session took place over the course of 14 hours, until 10 o‘clock the next morning. Asked why the session stopped, Irwin testified. ”Because Luke was dead at that point.”
In court, Bruce Leonard sat just feet away from the witness stand, back straight, head bowed, and for three hours of testimony never appearing to open his eyes. His wife Deborah sat at the opposite end of the witness table, hunched over, her long graying hair obscuring her face.
After Irwin left the stand, New York State Police Sergeant Todd Grant told the court that Deborah Leonard admitted she also hit her son, with an electric extension cord. She demonstrated how hard she hit him by slamming a computer cord on a table. She also told Grant, he said, that Sarah Ferguson—Leonard’s half sister– hit him too, angrier and harder.
At a press conference outside the courthouse, Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara said the case will go to a grand jury within 45 days. He said additional charges are likely.
I ANTICIPATE WHEN WE GO TO THE GRAND JURY WE WILL ASK THE GRAND JURY TO CONSIDER THESE CHARGES AND OTHER CHARGES AGAINST THESE INDIVIDUALS AND OTHER INDIVIDUALS. WE ARE LOOKING AT EVERYBODY THAT’S INVOLVED AND ANY OTHER CHARGES WE THINK WOULD BE APPROPRIATE BASED ON THE FACTS WE CAN PROVE IN COURT.
Christopher Leonard remains hospitalized and is cooperating with authorities.
For WAMC, I’m David Chanatry with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.