Oct 24, 2016

Pastor pleads guilty to manslaughter after church’s ‘counseling session’ turned fatal

Travis M. Andrews
Hamilton Spectator
October 24, 2016

In the eyes of the World of Life Christian Church, 19-year-old Lucas Leonard and his 17-year-old brother Christopher had sinned. One of Lucas' sins was his desire to leave the church entirely, to seek a new path.

Tiffanie Irwin, the church's pastor, along with other worshipers there, wouldn't accept any sort of new path and decided the teens needed to repent.

So on Oct. 11, 2015, the pastor gathered with her brother Joseph Irwin, mother-son pair Linda and David Morey and several other believers at their church in New Hartford, N.Y., and decided to hold a "counseling session." Among them were the teens' parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard.

After an eight-hour Sunday service, they asked the Leonard brothers to stay behind for a few moments.

It would end up being 14 hours.

During that time, the Associated Press reported, the congregation told the brothers they had to repent for sins of all stripes - from using a voodoo doll or allegedly molesting their half-sister's children, a claim police say is unsubstantiated and unsupported by any evidence - according to Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara.

To force this repentance, the worshipers beat the teens for most of the 14 hours, taking a folded 4-foot electrical cord to their torsos and genitals while telling them to "confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness."

As Sunday slipped into Monday, the parishioners continued to punch, kick and beat the teens until, at one point, the older brother stopped breathing.

"I looked over and saw Luke on the ground," Christopher later told the court, according to the Observer-Dispatch. "I rushed over and saw he wasn't breathing. I was trying to give him CPR. Someone went up to find [the pastor] - she was pressing on his chest while I tried to fill up his lungs."

As The Washington Post's Lindsey Bever reported, Lucas was rushed to St. Luke's Hospital, where he was pronounced dead from blunt-force trauma.

After investigators finally discovered he had been beaten at the church, they made a "tactical entry" into the building and found Christopher bleeding on the ground.

On Friday, a little more than a year after the assaults, Pastor Irwin pleaded guilty to manslaughter and assault. In addition, Linda and David Morey and the Irwin's brother Joseph pleaded guilty to assault, according to the AP.

The teens' parents had previously pleaded guilty to assault.The church's matriarch, Traci Irwin, and her son Daniel, previously pleaded guilty to unlawful imprisonment.

Sarah Ferguson, the teens' half-sister, was the only of the nine involved to decline a plea deal. She was found guilty after a non-jury trial in July, and she was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

The church, housed in an old, three-story, brick schoolhouse, was far from typical.

In fact, some people who lived near the church referred to it as a "cult" when speaking with the the Syracuse Post-Standard. One neighbor, who often heard chants slipping from the building, claimed to only see the church's congregation at night, sometimes as late as 3 a.m.

She also claimed the men affiliated with the church routinely wore long, black trenchcoats.

Lisa Brown, who grew up across from the church, told the Observer-Dispatch that the parishioners used to reach out and invite everyone to attend services, but at some point, those invitations ceased.

Now, neighbors said, the gate that guards the church is always closed.

"When they first took over the building, they would post Mass schedules so people knew when there were services," Brown said. "Now, it's not like just anyone could go to church there. . . . It's kind of been the running joke that there's a cult there."

Julie Howard, another neighbor who called the church a "cult," suspected its members of breeding dogs.

"There's always been weird things going on," Julie Howard, a neighbor, told WKTV. "You always hear dogs, they're breeding dogs. The cops have been called there before, they're not allowed in the building, they can't get in the building. The cult thing over here has been going on for a while, I guess around 30 years. It's their own religion."

A reporter from the Syracuse Post-Standard entered the church days after Lucas died. There, he found the place in a state of disarray. One room contained Styrofoam cups of cold coffee and a half-eaten pork sandwich. In another room was a framed stitched textile that read, in part, "We have been commissioned through the written word of God to reach out to those who have not experienced the love of Jesus Christ in their lives . . . Through the systematic training up of saints, our goal is for them to reach out confidently, sharing the love and compassion of Jesus Christ . . ."

A sign still hung on the front door, reading "Welcome to World of Life."

It is unclear if the house of worship is still operating at this time, though after the arrests, police told the Post-Standard that several children from the church had been placed in protective custody.

Sentencing hearings for the eight people who have pleaded guilty are currently scheduled for December and January.


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