Oct 19, 2015

Witness Says Clash Over Witchcraft Preceded Fatal Beating at Church

New York Times
JESSE McKINLEY, BENJAMIN MUELLER and RICK ROJAS
OCT. 16, 2015

NEW HARTFORD, N.Y. — On Sunday night, toward the end of a daylong church service, Tiffanie Irwin, the pastor at Word of Life Christian Church here, turned to her congregation and made a stunning accusation.

Someone among them, she said, was practicing witchcraft.

Lucas Leonard, a 19-year-old whose family was immersed in Word of Life’s secretive practices, said that he was the one, that he wanted church elders to die and that he had considered making a voodoo doll of a church leader.

Those revelations were some of what one member of the church, Daniel Irwin, told investigators after Mr. Leonard was beaten to death by a group of fellow congregants — including Mr. Leonard’s parents and half sister — during a so-called counseling session that began on Sunday night and stretched into Monday morning.

The account of Mr. Irwin, 24, a Word of Life deacon whose family leads the church, provided the latest possible explanation of what had precipitated the attack. Mr. Leonard’s younger brother, Christopher, 17, was also beaten for hours but survived. He remained hospitalized on Friday and was cooperating with the authorities.

The police reiterated on Friday that the beatings had grown out of concerns that Lucas Leonard wanted to defect from the group. They have also rejected assertions that he had been punished for molesting children who also belonged to Word of Life, a reclusive sect whose former members have called it emotionally manipulative and cultlike and whose unusual activities in a former schoolhouse had long puzzled residents in this central New York town.

A statement made by Mr. Irwin to the authorities that had not been made public, but was reviewed by The New York Times, suggests that church members may have been unsettled by Mr. Leonard’s open admission of practicing witchcraft. Mr. Irwin was also a central witness as county prosecutors presented evidence during a preliminary hearing on Friday and offered disturbing details about the attack.

Sitting on the witness stand chewing gum, Mr. Irwin recalled seeing Mr. Leonard’s father, Bruce, beating the teenager with an electrical cord. The attack, in a sanctuary at the rear of the church, ended when it did — at 10 a.m. the following day — because, Mr. Irwin said, “Luke was dead at that point.”

Bruce Leonard, 65, and his wife, Deborah Leonard, 59, shackled hand and foot and wearing orange prison jumpsuits, were in court just a few feet from Mr. Irwin on Friday. Both have been charged with first-degree manslaughter; neither looked at Mr. Irwin during his testimony.

Four other church members, including Sarah Ferguson, the victim’s half sister, and Joseph Irwin, who is Daniel Irwin’s older brother and also a deacon in the church, have been charged with assault. All six were in court on Friday, including two other congregants, David Morey and Linda Morey, who have been released on bail.

Daniel Irwin said that shortly after the counseling session began, he could hear a voice being raised in the room. Five children — one of them the Leonards’ youngest son, and the others Sarah Ferguson’s children — were being looked after in a nearby room. He led them to a different part of the church building, he said, “so they wouldn’t be afraid.”

Mr. Irwin, who lived in a residential portion of the church building with other members of his family, said he was not involved in the beatings. But he saw Lucas Leonard at various points during his ordeal, including early on Monday when, he said, the teenager’s leg was bloodied but he was coherent.

“He didn’t seem overly injured,” Mr. Irwin said. “He was walking on his own.”

The last time he saw Mr. Leonard conscious, he said, was sometime after dawn, and his injuries had become more severe. He was on the floor on the main sanctuary, a former gymnasium at the rear of the church building, but “alert enough to answer questions.”

“I remember that he was rolling himself back and forth on the floor and making a sustained monotone moan,” Mr. Irwin said.

By midmorning, the situation had turned dire, when Joseph Irwin and Mr. Morey, who had been in the counseling session, ran into the residence in a panic. “I went back down to the main sanctuary,” Daniel Irwin said. “I saw Luke Leonard lying on the floor.” Mr. Irwin’s mother, Traci, and Bruce Leonard were trying to resuscitate him, Mr. Irwin said.

But they stopped after about 10 minutes. Church members tried to to load Lucas Leonard him into the van, but they were “hysterical at this point,” Daniel Irwin said.

“I grabbed Luke and carried him outside,” he said. But he was pronounced dead at a hospital on Monday.

In a police interview with Ms. Leonard, Sgt. Todd Grant, an investigator with the State Police, said he gave her the cord for his laptop computer and asked her to demonstrate how she had hit her son by slamming the cord against a table. The hitting was “very hard and violent,” he testified on Friday.

Ms. Leonard also told him that Ms. Ferguson had joined in the beating. “Sarah was even angrier at Lucas,” Sergeant Grant said, “and she hit him even harder.” She was upset, he added, “for things he had said during the course of the night.”

Mr. Irwin also said in statements to the authorities that at some point during the night he was told by another church member that Lucas Leonard had admitted to abusing children in the church.

But the police have consistently rejected that suggestion. “There is absolutely no indication of any sexual abuse to any of the children,” said Chief Michael S. Inserra of the New Hartford Police Department.

It was not uncommon for church leaders to plant rumors about congregants from the pulpit, several former Word of Life members said, sometimes alleging that a parent had been unfaithful or that a young member had inappropriately touched another child. The rumors were often outlandish and false, the ex-congregants said, but that did not keep them from splitting families apart and spreading fear of the longtime pastor, Jerry Irwin, the family patriarch. Mr. Irwin died several years ago, but the memory of his reprimands remains fresh, former congregants said.

“He would verbally attack you,” said Nathan Ames, whose family belonged to the church when he was born in 1989 and who said he had been driven out by Mr. Irwin in 2001. “Sometimes he would drop hints he was talking about that person, and sometimes he would just say their name. But if someone left, he would bash them so much. He would spread these lies: ‘Oh, I saw them watching TV. This person wanted to rape my daughter. This person wanted to sleep with my wife.’ ”

Though Mr. Irwin testified that he had never sat through an entire counseling session, he said it was not typical for violence to take place during such events. He said he had never before seen anyone physically beaten on the church grounds.

He recalled that as he saw Mr. Leonard laying still in the sanctuary on Monday morning, his own sense of urgency at the situation distorted his perceptions.

“It seemed like I was looking through a pipe,” he said. “Everything seemed weird to me.”



Jesse McKinley and Rick Rojas reported from New Hartford, and Benjamin Mueller from New York. Nate Schweber contributed reporting from New Hartford, and Susan C. Beachy contributed research.

A version of this article appears in print on October 17, 2015, on page A17 of the New York edition with the headline: Witness Says Clash Over Witchcraft Preceded a Teenager’s Fatal Beating.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/17/nyregion/word-of-life-fatal-beating-new-hartford-police-lucas-leonard.html?_r=0

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