Oct 15, 2015

The 'cult'-like church whose members are accused of fatally beating a teen

Lindsey Bever
Washington Post
October 14, 2015




The red brick building is quiet now, though a sign on the door still tells visitors: “Welcome to Word of Life.” Inside one room of the former schoolhouse, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard, there is “cold coffee still in Styrofoam cups and a half-eaten pork sandwich sitting on a counter.” In another, according to the newspaper, a notebook is open, showing what appears to be sermon notes.

Some who live near the mysterious Word of Life Church near New Hartford, N.Y., call it a “cult,” telling the Syracuse Post-Standard that they often hear members singing and chanting in the middle of the night. The men, they say, walk around in “long, black trenchcoats.”

“There was just a really weird vibe about the place,” a former neighbor, Adriane Hectus, told the Utica Observer-Dispatch.

It was inside the building where, police said, a couple allegedly beat one of their teenage sons to death and seriously injured another, with help from parishioners.

New Hartford Police Chief Michael Inserra told reporters that following a church service on Sunday night, 19-year-old Lucas Leonard and his brother, 17-year-old Christopher Leonard, were forced to sit through what parishioners called a “counseling session” that turned violent. For hours, the teens were physically punished “in hopes that each would confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness,” Inserra said.

Authorities have yet to determine what those sins were.

Lucas Leonard was pronounced dead Monday at a nearby hospital, after sustaining blows to his abdomen, back, genitals and thighs, police said. Inserra said autopsy results showed contusions to his torso and extremities.

Christopher Leonard remains hospitalized in serious condition.

Their parents, Bruce Leonard, 65, and Deborah Leonard, 59, from Clayville, were charged with first-degree manslaughter, Inserra said at a news conference Wednesday. The two are being held in Oneida County Jail on $100,000 bail. Four fellow church members were charged with second-degree assault and are being held on $50,000 bail. Police have not given a possible motive for the attack.

At some point during the session, parishioners noticed Lucas Leonard was not breathing, Inserra said. Early Monday afternoon, his family members drove him to the nearby St. Luke’s Hospital, and medical personnel called police, reporting a possible gunshot wound.

The teen was pronounced dead at the hospital.

Inserra said police determined he died from blunt-force trauma, not a gunshot wound.

After hours of interviews, investigators discovered that he had been assaulted at the church.

State and local authorities swarmed the crime scene. Police in a “military” vehicle parked outside and armed officers laid down in the grass and aimed rifles at the building, witnesses told the Syracuse Post-Standard.

Authorities obtained a search warrant and made a “tactical entry” into the building, police said. Inside, officers found Christopher Leonard and transported him to a nearby hospital.

Police said several other children were also discovered in the building and were turned over to child protective services.

Police arrested Bruce and Deborah Leonard as well as four others: David Morey, 26; Linda Morey, 54; Sarah Ferguson, 33; and Joseph Irwin, 26.

Attempts to reach church members were unsuccessful.

Authorities have identified the church as “Word of Life Church,” though a sign on its building reads “Word of Life Christian Church.”

Asked about claims that it was a cult, Inserra told reporters: “I’ve heard that term on the street and I’ve even read it in the news.” But, he said, a police investigation hadn’t yet shown it to be true.

“There’s always been weird things going on,” Julie Howard, who lives near the church, told NBC affiliate WKTV. “You always hear dogs, they’re breeding dogs. …

“The cult thing over here has been going on for a while — I guess around 30 years. It’s their own religion everybody stays in their own religion. It’s like one big happy family of about 30 of them.”

Bruce Leonard’s attorney, Don Gerace, told The Post his client was born and raised in upstate New York. He has worked as a farmer and, more recently, a teaching assistant at a local high school. He has no prior criminal history, Gerace said.

Gerace said Bruce and Deborah Leonard have been married for more than 20 years; for the past eight years, he said, the two have attended the church. Gerace also would not comment on claims that the church was a cult.

“People are entitled to their own opinions,” he said.

Deborah Leonard’s attorney, Devin Garramone, said it was too early to comment on the case. “I’m just getting up to speed,” he said.

At an arraignment Tuesday, the couple pleaded not guilty. A hearing is set for Friday for the court to decide whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed with a grand jury.

Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara declined to comment on the case, citing the on-going police investigation. But he distinguished between “murder” and “manslaughter” charges, explaining that murder requires intent to kill; manslaughter requires only intent to harm — and to show that the injuries lead to death.

“I’m sure there will be more charges,” he said. “There are a lot of things going on. … There are more people who could be charged too.”

This story has been updated.

Lindsey Bever is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post. Tweet her: @lindseybever

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