Teen recounts deadly beating inside secretive church

Sarah Ferguson stands in court during  a hearing, Friday, Oct. 16, 2015, in New Hartford, N.Y.  (Tina Russell/Observer-Dispatch via AP)

Sarah Ferguson stands in court during a hearing, Friday, Oct. 16, 2015, in New Hartford, N.Y. (Tina Russell/Observer-Dispatch via AP)

NEW HARTFORD, N.Y. — Called to a meeting in the sanctuary of their church, teenage brothers Christopher and Lucas Leonard were told to stand and answer for what they had done.

When the answers didn’t come, the beatings began.

Christopher Leonard, 17, said he was punched in the stomach by a fellow church member. Then his parents, his half sister and other congregants delivered a beating that racked his whole body, until he was taken to another room with earplugs and earmuffs to keep him from hearing what was going on around him, he said.

“It hurt,” he said, “everywhere.”

When he was finally brought back to the sanctuary, he saw his 19-year-old brother collapse on the floor, moaning — and, then, not breathing.

His voice barely audible in court, Christopher Leonard gave his first public account Wednesday of the violence last week that sent him to the hospital and killed his brother. Six people have been arrested, including the brothers’ parents and half sister.

Testifying at a hearing for the half sister, Christopher didn’t explain what the brothers were being punished for, and the judge stopped him from disclosing what questions they were asked.

Outside court, authorities have said the beating erupted during “spiritual counseling” over Lucas’ desire to leave Word of Life Christian Church, a small, secretive and highly regimented congregation in upstate New York.

The teens’ parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard, are charged with manslaughter. The half sister, 33-year-old Sarah Ferguson, and three other church members are charged with assault.

At the conclusion of Wednesday’s hearing, the judge ruled there is sufficient evidence for the case against Ferguson to go forward.

Christopher Leonard testified that after an eight-hour Sunday service Oct. 11, pastor Tiffanie Irwin asked the Leonard family and some others to stay behind for a meeting.

The purpose?

The slight, bespectacled teenager paused, then said only: “To talk about what we had done. Lucas and I.”

He said he and his brother answered some questions during the interrogation but didn’t want to answer others.

Over what Christopher Leonard estimated was six or more hours, he was pummeled with fists and whipped with a 4-foot, folded electrical cord on the back and elsewhere, he said. He suffered injuries to his torso and genitals.

Later, he said, he rushed over to Lucas on the floor in the sanctuary, noticed he wasn’t breathing and tried with a church leader to revive him.

Barred from riding in the family van that carried his brother to a hospital, Christopher was taken to the hospital by other congregants but didn’t go in, he recalled. Instead, they drove him back and made him a bed on the second floor of the school-turned-church. He went to sleep, though it hurt to breathe and he repeatedly vomited.

Police have said the teens’ parents and other congregants wouldn’t tell officers where the injured Christopher was, and authorities searched for hours before a former church member helped get him on the phone.

The mother’s lawyer has said she was too timid to stop the beating. The father’s attorney has said prosecutors haven’t proved the couple intended to inflict serious injuries.

The pastor hasn’t been charged and hasn’t commented on the beating.

During the hearing, Ferguson stared down at the defense table in a small courtroom that officials had rearranged so that her brother would be a little farther away from her while he was on the stand.

“I can’t imagine the stress he was under to go into a courtroom … to testify against his sister,” District Attorney Scott McNamara said.

Ferguson’s lawyer, Thomas O’Brien III, described her as a “very sweet” and caring mother of four. He declined to comment further.

The case has dragged the reclusive church’s ways into public view in New Hartford, a town of 22,000 people about 50 miles from Syracuse where many had wondered what went on behind the brick walls.

Since the arrests, former members have described a once-vibrant and joyous house of worship that declined into a place of fear and intimidation.

The teens’ uncle Jimmy Stewart said Wednesday that he and his wife attended Word of Life in the 1990s but never joined because they felt “something wasn’t right.” The church’s pastors then forbade the Leonard children to associate with his family, he said.

Stewart said he long worried that “something like this would happen.”

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