Oct 22, 2015

Survivor of Word of Life Church Beatings Testifies in Court

New York Times
October 21, 2015

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NEW HARTFORD, N.Y. — Speaking in a voice barely above a whisper, the surviving victim of a brutal assault inside a secretive church described on Wednesday how he and his brother were interrogated and beaten by relatives and church members, sometimes while restrained, after the pastor asked them to explain “what we had done.”

His testimony, which lasted about 20 minutes, presented a harrowing inside view of the attack.

The victim, Christopher Leonard, a slight, shaggy-haired 17-year-old, was released from a hospital last weekend. His brother Lucas Leonard, 19, died after the beating.

On Wednesday, he walked unassisted into the Town of New Hartford courthouse wearing sneakers, dungarees and a fleece pullover, and alongside a representative from the Oneida County Child Protective Services, to testify at a preliminary hearing against his half sister, Sarah Ferguson. Ms. Ferguson is accused of assault in the attack, which lasted for more than 12 hours on Oct. 11 and 12 at Word of Life Christian Church.

“Joe Irwin came over grabbed me by the sweatshirt, counted to three, and then he punched me in the stomach,” he recounted in his testimony, referring to Joseph Irwin, the son of the church’s longtime leader, Jerry Irwin, who died in 2012.

He described being beaten with “a black cord about four feet long,” folded once or twice. Asked where Ms. Ferguson had struck him, he said, “Everywhere except my head.”

“It hurt,” he said, adding that the pain of the injuries continued “the whole time I was in the hospital and afterward.”

The lead prosecutor in the courtroom, Dawn Lupi, first assistant district attorney for Oneida County, asked if he tried to defend himself. “I held out my hands to stop the whip,” he said.

Bruce T. Leonard, 65, and Deborah Leonard, 59, the teenagers’ parents, have been charged with first-degree manslaughter in the case. Ms. Ferguson, 33, faces felony assault charges, as does Joseph Irwin, 26. Two other congregants — David Morey, 26, and Linda Morey, 54, of Utica — were also charged with assault, and have posted bail.

Word of Life, a reclusive sect, is controlled by the Irwins, who live in the church building, a three-story former schoolhouse on the edge of this town in central New York.

With his head down, Christopher said that at the end of a daylong service on Oct. 11, Tiffanie Irwin, the church’s pastor and daughter of Jerry Irwin, called on the brothers to stand in a small sanctuary area in front of the church’s leadership and the Leonard family and answer questions.

Asked why, Christopher paused before answering.

“To talk about what we had done,” Christopher finally said. He was seated 10 feet from Ms. Ferguson.

In a statement made to the authorities, Daniel Irwin, a Word of Life deacon and brother of Tiffanie Irwin, said that on Sunday evening, Ms. Irwin had accused someone in the church of practicing witchcraft.

According to Mr. Irwin’s statement, Lucas Leonard admitted that he wanted church elders to die and that he had considered making a voodoo doll of a church leader.

The police and prosecutors have said Lucas Leonard wanted to leave the church, and have repeatedly rejected assertions that he or his brother had been punished for molesting children at the church, something Daniel Irwin also suggested Mr. Leonard had confessed to in his statements to the authorities.

New Hartford police have dismissed both the suggestions of witchcraft and of molestation as rumors “instigated by a member or members of the Word of Life Christian Church.”

On Wednesday, Ms. Lupi did not ask what Ms. Irwin’s questions or the brothers’ actions had been, and she successfully objected to a defense question regarding their nature. But Christopher said he and his brother had reluctantly answered some of them and refused to answer others before being attacked.

At times, he said, he was restrained by Joe Irwin and David Morey.

The two brothers were eventually separated; Christopher was moved to a larger area of the sanctuary building — a former gymnasium at the back of the church — and told to sit in a corner, wearing headphones and earmuffs, which muted the sound of his brother’s interrogation.

Then Christopher was taken back to the small sanctuary. Hours later, Christopher said he saw his brother again “in the middle of the larger sanctuary.”

“I’m pretty sure Luke collapsed,” he said, adding, “He was on the ground moaning.”

“I knew something wasn’t right,” he said.

Christopher said he saw his brother was not breathing and tried to give him CPR, as did his father and Traci Irwin, the church’s matriarch, who had been summoned from the residential portion of the building. Christopher said Daniel Irwin eventually moved Lucas’s motionless body to a vehicle, and he was driven to a hospital. He was pronounced dead on the afternoon of Oct. 12.

Christopher also went to the hospital with Daniel and Joseph Irwin and David Morey, but did not go inside. He later was driven to a Home Depot parking lot near the hospital, he said, where he tried to rest but instead vomited. Finally, he was returned to the church, where Daniel Irwin made up a “mattress and a blanket and pillow for me” and “brought me some food and water.”

That evening, he spoke to the police on the phone and left the church.

Tom O’Brien, the lawyer for Ms. Ferguson, had little comment on the charges but said he expected evidence for the defense to come out at trial.

Scott D. McNamara, the Oneida County district attorney, said he would not comment on the facts of the case but suggested that Tiffanie Irwin could face charges when the case went before a grand jury, which is likely to happen before the end of November.

“We are looking at everybody who was involved in this incident,” Mr. McNamara said, adding that he could pursue charges like depraved indifference to murder or gang assault.

Mr. McNamara said he was impressed by Christopher’s bravery in facing his half sister, who is one of his alleged assailants. “We asked a lot of a very young man,” he said, adding, “I can’t imagine the stress he was under.”

A version of this article appears in print on October 22, 2015, on page A25 of the New York edition with the headline: Teenager, in Court, Tells of Attacks That Killed Brother .


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