Teenager rolled and moaned after beating at 'cult church', court told

Police are investigating the death of a 19-year-old after a 'counselling' session at the church

The Independent, UK/October 16, 2015

By Andrew Buncombe

A member of the New York church at the centre of a “cult beating” investigation has told how he saw a teenager roll on the floor and emit a “sustained monotone moan” during a so-called intervention where he watched the boy’s father hit him him with a belt.

Daniel Irwin, whose sister is pastor at the Word of Life Christian Church, told a court that he saw Bruce Leonard strike his two sons, Lucas and Christopher, five or six times during the counselling session. He said the beating made both teenagers “wince”.

“I saw Bruce Leonard walk up to Lucas Leonard and hit him with something that looked like a belt,” he told New Hartford Town court. “It was five or six times.”

Mr Leonard and wife, Deborah, are among six members of the church who have been charged over the death of 19-year-old Lucas Leonard, in what police believe was a counselling session that went drastically wrong. The couple have pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter.

On Friday, the couple were brought before Judge William Virkler, for a preliminary hearing where prosecutors outlined some of their evidence. The couple – both handcuffed and with their ankles manacled – were brought into the court wearing orange jump-suits.

They sat with their heads bowed, neither looking at the witnesses or at each other, as Mr Irwin and a series of police officers provided details about the session at the church, the death of teenager and the subsequent questioning of the couple.

The court heard that members of the church were apparently angry with Lucas for some, at yet unspecified, offence. New York State police investigator Todd Graham said that Mrs Leonard had told him she and another church member, Sarah Ferguson, who is her daughter from another marriage, had hit Mr Lucas with a “cord”. He said she had shown him on the back of a chair the force with which they had struck him.

Asked by Mrs Leonard's lawyer how hard the striking had been, he said: “Very hard, violent.”

Police have said the 19-year-old was severely beaten before he was rushed by church members to a hospital last Monday morning. A post-mortem examination found he sustained blows to his abdomen, back, genitals, thighs and torso. His brother, Christopher, remains in hospital where he is recovering from his injuries.

Police photographer Justin Garringer told the court he had taken photographs of Lucas’s body. “There were numerous bruises all over his body,” he said.

The death of the teenager and the steady slip of details about what some have called a cult, have stunned many in the New York town, where the trees bear the gold and red of autumn. Many have expressed bewilderment that something such as this could take place here.

In addition to the manslaughter charges against Mr Leonard, 65, and his 59-year-old wife, four members  David Morey, 26, Linda Morey, 54, Sarah Ferguson, 33, and 26-year old Joseph Irwin, have been charged with assault. The Moreys have been released on bail.

Mr Irwin is another brother of the church’s pastor, Tiffany Irwin. Ms Irwin and her mother, Traci, said to be a founder of the church, have not been charged.

The Leonards live in the nearby town of Clayville, and Mr Leonard has spent many years working as a teacher. One neighbour, James Constantine, said the Leonards had home-schooled their two sons and refused to let them watch television.

“They had no life,” said Mr Constantine, who was taking food for the Leonards’ animals.

Another neighbour, who asked not to be named, said Mr Leonard had occasionally taught him at the local high school “They kids were really well behaved,” he said.

“I’ve read some things saying that they were being punished for bad behaviour, but they were well behaved.”

Mr Leonard's lawyer, Don Gerace, told The Independent his client was not guilty of manslaughter. "There was an incident involving the family about some information that had come to light," he said. Asked what the boys had done to trigger such emotion, he said: "I am not at liberty to discuss that."

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