Oct 23, 2016

Word of Life church pastor pleads guilty to manslaughter.

Utica Observer Dispatch


UTICA — After the final four Word of Life Christian Church defendants appeared in Oneida County Court on Friday, all those charged in the brutal beatings had either pleaded guilty or were found guilty of their crimes.

Nine members of the church, including the teens’ parents, originally were charged for their roles in an October 2015 so-called counseling session that killed Lucas Leonard, 19, and left his now-18-year-old brother Christopher Leonard severely injured.

The boys were whipped with an electrical cord on their stomachs, genitals, backs and thighs for as many as 14 hours “in hopes that each would confess their prior sins and ask for forgiveness,” police have said.

“We really had to look at and consider how much trauma we wanted to put the family through,” said Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara following the proceeding. Judge Michael Dwyer briefly lifted an imposed gag order so that McNamara could explain the pleas to the media.

“I can only hope that Luke can rest in peace, Chris can get on with his life and as can (sister) Grace and the whole Leonard family,” he continued. “This is a terrible tragedy.”

On Friday, Pastor Tiffanie Irwin, 30, pleaded guilty to two felonies: third-degree manslaughter in the death of Lucas Leonard and felony second-degree assault of Christopher Leonard. She’ll face 12 years in state prison and will be sentenced Monday, Dec. 19.

Irwin requested to be in the courtroom while the remaining defendants — her brother Joseph Irwin, 23, Linda Morey, 55, and her son David Morey, 27 — accepted pleas. The trio, shackled and in orange jumpsuits, entered the courtroom together.

Both Moreys pleaded to two counts of felony second-degree assault and will face five-year prison sentences. They’ll be sentenced Monday, Jan. 9.

Joseph Irwin accepted eight years in prison as he pleaded guilty to felony first-degree gang assault and second-degree assault. He will be sentenced Monday, Dec. 19.

Previously, the teens' mother, Deborah Leonard, 60, and father, Bruce Leonard, 66, pleaded guilty to first- and second-degree assault. Traci Irwin and her son Daniel Irwin accepted plea offers to two years in county jail on two counts of felony first-degree unlawful imprisonment.

Sarah Ferguson, the teens’ sister, was tried in June and found guilty of first-degree manslaughter, two counts of first-degree assault and two counts of first-degree gang assault. She was sentenced to 25 years in state prison.

Joseph Irwin denies being ‘chief jailer’

Beside a quip from Tracie Irwin that she wasn’t “physically” threatened to make the plea, everyone except Joseph Irwin accepted the agreements without contest.

Dwyer told Joseph Irwin that the only way he would accept his guilty plea is if he admits to the prosecution’s allegations that his role in the beatings included keeping the teens in the church, separating them for interrogations and demanding they stand for more beatings.

“You’ve heard the others admit their responsibility,” Dwyer said, narrowing his eyes at Irwin.

McNamara said Irwin acted as “chief jailer” and was “the one” who arranged for the teens to be questioned about how they got into half-sister Sarah Ferguson’s apartment and what they did to her children.

“I didn’t hold them,” Irwin said between sobs. “I pushed Christopher to the floor before they had whipped them, but I didn’t stay. I can say yes (to the allegations) … but I wasn’t there. I didn’t know what was going to happen.”

Shortly after, a woman from the gallery screamed at McNamara calling him a liar. She was quickly removed from the courtroom.

After a brief conference at the judge’s bench, Dwyer accepted Irwin’s plea without making him admit to anything other than hitting each boy once and being present during the beatings.

Follow @OD_Scott on Twitter or call her at 315-792-5037.



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