Photo Credit: Tina Russell, Utica Observer-Dispatch
This story originally aired on North Country Public Radio.
Read the script.
The surviving brother in that brutal church beating in New Hartford made his first appearance in court yesterday. Christopher Leonard testified he and his brother were beaten by family members and others in the church. Lucas Leonard died from his injuries. The hearing was to determine whether the assault charge against their half-sister should go to a grand jury. Our story comes from David Chanatry with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.
As 17-year old Christopher Leonard entered the courtroom, he walked right past his sister Sarah Ferguson without so much as a glance. The court was arranged so they sat on opposite sides of the room, and throughout his testimony he looked at her only once, to identify her in the courtroom. Ferguson, in handcuffs and shackles, never looked up.
Leonard told the court the pastor of Word of Life Church, Tiffanie Irwin, asked his family to stay behind after Sunday service, so he and his brother Lucas could tell what they had done. What that refered to was not addressed in court—the district attorney says Lucas Leonard simply wanted to leave the church—but when the boys didn’t answer the Pastor’s questions, Leonard said, the meeting turned violent. He testified that the Pastor’s brother Joseph Irwin grabbed him by the shirt then punched him.
Who else hit you asked Assistant DA Dawn Lupe?
David Morey, Sarah, my dad and mom, he said. All have been charged with crimes in this case, including manslaughter charges against his parents Bruce and Deborah Leonard.
Christopher Leonard said he was –whipped- with a folded over cord about four feet long. He said his father hit him with it first, on the back.
Who else hit you, asked Lupee?
My mother and sister.
Where did Sarah hit you?
Sarah hit me everywhere except my head, he said.
As the packed courtroom strained to hear Leonard—he spoke so softly the defense attorney twice asked him to speak up—Leonard said after being beaten he was separated from Lucas, taken into a different room and made to wear earmuffs and headphones. Later, he saw his brother Lucas collapse. He was laying on the ground moaning, he said, and after what seemed like half an hour Pastor Tiffanie called for his mother and dad. Leonard said he knew something wasn’t right, I rushed over and saw he wasn’t breathing, he said. I tried to give him CPR.
After Lucas was taken to the hospital, Chris got in a van to go, too. But instead of going in, he said, they pulled into a Home Depot parking lot. He got sick, he said, and had trouble breathing. Then he was taken back to the Church where he stayed in police brought him out.
After the hearing, Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara said this is a very active investigation and he will pursue anyone they feel has culpability in the crime.
0245 WE ARE LOOKING EVERYBODY THAT WAS INVOLVED WITH THIS INCIDENT, AND WE WILL PRESENT ALL OF THE INFORMATION THAT WE HAVE TO THE GRAND JURY, ALONG WITH THE CHARGES THAT WERE ORIGINALLY FILED AND ANY OTHER CHARGES WE FEEL ARE APPROPRIATE, AND THAT WOULD INCLUDE DEPRAVED INDIFFERENCE MURDER.
McNamara also commended Christopher Leonard for having the courage to testify.
WE ASKED HIM TO DO SOMETHING THTS VERY DIFFICULT FOR ANYONE TO DO. /I CANT IMAGE THE STRESS HE WAS UNDER TO GO INTO A COURTROOM WITH THIS MUCH MEDIA COVERAGE TO TESTIFY AGAINST HIS SISTER.
New Hartford Town Justice William Virkler ruled there is enough evidence to proceed. The DA says they will go to a grand jury within 45 days.
For … I’m David Chanatry with the New York Reporting Project at Utica College.