'It's a cult ... I don't care what they say': Neighbors recall strange rituals at upstate N.Y. church where teen was beaten to death

New York Daily News/October 17, 2015

By Laura Bult

Lucas Leonard never had a prayer.

Though bewildered neighbors often wondered what happened inside the cult-like Word of Life Church, its bizarre “religious” rituals continued until last week — when Leonard was fatally beaten.

“We all had known for years and we just left it alone,” said Scott Martin, a retired local cop. “It’s a cult, I don’t care what they say, it’s a cult.”

Other residents of tiny, rural, upstate Chadwicks recount tales of strange behavior at the large red schoolhouse building where its roughly 50 congregants would meet.

“They used to build fires on the roofs, and there was chanting and weird rituals,” said Fred Aiken, whose backyard has a view of the building on the quiet village street.

Dogs howled all night inside the shuttered church, but were never seen outside.

“Everyone wants to know what was going on in there,” Aiken told the Daily News.

Aiken never saw members come or go, adding that the church attached surveillance cameras to keep unwanted visitors away.

Lucas Leonard, 19, was savagely beaten along with kid brother Christopher, 17, during a church “counseling session,” authorities said.

The siblings were ordered to confess their sins and ask for forgiveness during an hours-long assault, authorities said.

Lucas Leonard, mortally wounded as his parents and other church members pummeled his genitals, abdomen, back and thighs, died after he was brought to a local hospital.

Dad and mom Bruce Leonard, 65, and Deborah Leonard, 59, were charged along with four fellow parishioners.

Aiken said the investigation into the mysterious beating of the brothers should finally shed some light on the creepy group.

The quiet, middle-class town of less than 2,000 people is one in a cluster of small villages in the scenic Mohawk Valley in central New York.

Most residents are friendly and religious, but locals say the Word of Life members kept to themselves. And two Chadwicks religious leaders eyed the church with suspicion.

The Rev. Abe Esper, 64, pastor of the neighboring St. Patrick’s-St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, questioned whether they were actually a religion.

“Their God is vengeful and wrathful,” said Esper, who also witnessed some strange sights at the schoolhouse. “Just look at what they did.”

One day, Esper dialed the cops when his unfriendly neighbors started playing the drums loudly.

“When the music was playing so loud, I went over and pounded on the door. No one came to the door, so I called the cops,” Esper said. “It’s a little strange, never the same room has the lights on, there’s no doorbell.”

Renée Henck, 19, an Elmira College sophomore from a neighboring town, worked as a lifeguard at the Paris Town Park pool with Leonard and knew his family.

“They really were such a nice family, and it’s so painful to see them in a bad situation,” Henck said.

“We didn’t really know if it was a church,” she continued. “It has been a running joke. We’d say, ‘Is it really a cult?’”

Henck recalled the doomed Leonard as a friendly and artistic young man with aspirations of medical school.

“I hear people say he must have been mean or cruel to be in a group like that,” she said. “He was never like that.”

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