NEW HARTFORD, N.Y. — Parents charged with beating their teenage son to death inside a church are giving diverging versions of what happened, though lawyers for both said Thursday the couple hadn’t intended the brutality that unfolded.
An attorney for the mother, Deborah Leonard, said she felt helpless to stop an “intervention” that spiraled into severe punishment by others at the Word of Life Christian Church. But a lawyer for the father, Bruce Leonard, said the incident stemmed from a family meeting that had nothing to do with the church.
Police have said a spiritual counseling session devolved into violence Sunday night at the Word of Life, as members tried to get Lucas Leonard, 19, and his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, to confess sins and seek forgiveness. After hours of being pounded with fists and kicked, the elder teen died and his brother was hospitalized with serious injuries, though police said Thursday his condition was improving.
“We want to understand why this happened, how this session got so out of control that it cost the life of a young man,” New Hartford police Chief Michael Inserra said in an interview. Police say they aren’t certain why the teens were being punished.
A timid Deborah Leonard “went along with” others in a church where she had worshipped for years, not anticipating how harsh the intervention would become, said her lawyer, Devin Garramone.
“She didn’t have the temerity to stand up to them and say, ‘You’re not punishing my kid,'” said Garramone, adding that he believed she didn’t cause the fatal injuries.
Bruce Leonard’s lawyer, Donald Gerace, said the episode “could just as well have taken place outside the church.” He said the Leonards had no intention of seriously injuring their son.
The parents and four others arrested in the beatings — including the victims’ 33-year-old sister, Sarah Ferguson — are due in court Friday. The parents have pleaded not guilty to manslaughter, and the others have pleaded not guilty to assault. Lawyers for the other defendants haven’t commented.
Inserra said Thursday he wasn’t sure whether anyone else would be charged.
As the parents’ accounts of the beating began to emerge, so did contrasting views of the family and the secluded, small-town congregation.
Some of the Leonards’ neighbors have described a highly religious family that largely shunned the outside world. But a relative’s Instagram account shows a different side of the Leonards. In one photo, Deborah and Bruce Leonard beam at the camera during a wedding anniversary outing.
“The most genuine and caring people I have ever known,” her son Whitney Gilmore captioned the photo.
His roommate said Thursday that Gilmore was away for work.
Housed in a former school building in a rural part of central New York, 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.
To some local residents, it was a strangely secretive place: a church where the doors weren’t open, dogs barked, people were rarely seen coming and going, and members were loath to let even firefighters in. “Clearly disconnected from everything,” said Kameron Evans, 16.
Even the pastor at a church next door, the Rev. Abraham Esper, said he’d had little contact with Word of Life, except in letters he wrote complaining about noisy dogs and music.
The police chief said the congregants so firmly kept to themselves that when a fire broke out a few years ago, they extinguished it themselves and didn’t want to let in firefighters.
Devoted to the church, 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. Prosecutors subpoenaed Tiffanie Irwin’s brother, Daniel, to testify at a court hearing Friday.
But if neighbors weren’t sure what to make of Word of Life, Gerace said it was much like many churches, holding regular services and Bible study and providing food to the needy.
When local resident Sarah Gendron went to a service about eight years ago, she left with an impression of a congregation that liked services full of music, some played on electric guitars and drums, and went door to door dropping off bread, milk and butter.
“A cool Christian church,” she said. “Very family-oriented.”