Pastor of a secretive New York sect where a teen was beaten to death and another seriously injured is among seven church members to be charged with murder

Daily Mail, UK/November 22, 2015

By Hannah Parry and Louise Boyle

The pastor of a secretive New York 'cult' where a young man was beaten to death and his younger brother seriously injured is among seven people now charged with his murder.

Lucas Leonard was murdered by a mob of congregants - which included his own parents and half-sister - during a 'counseling session' at the Word of Life Church in New Hartford, New York.

The 19-year-old was beaten for 11 hours in the sanctuary on October 11 in an attack allegedly organized by the leader, Pastor Tiffany Irwin, after he said he wanted to leave the church. His younger brother Christopher, 17, was also savagely beaten for hours but survived the assault.

Pastor Tiffanie Irwin and her mother Traci Irwin, who originally were not charged in the incident, now face charges of second-degree murder, kidnapping and gang assault.

Leonard's father Bruce, 65, and his half-sister Sarah Ferguson, 33, have also been charged with murder and assault. His mother Deborah, 59, will appear in Oneida County Court on separate charges of first-degree and second-degree assault, according to her lawyer Devin Garramone.

Fellow congregants David Morey, 26, Linda Morey, 54, and Joseph Irwin, 26, face the same charges while church deacon Daniel Irwin, 24, was indicted on charges of second-degree manslaughter, kidnapping and gang assault.

At a hearing last month, Christopher Leonard testified that Tiffanie Irwin asked the Leonard family and some others to stay behind for a meeting after an eight-hour Sunday service.

Over what he estimated was six or more hours, the teen said he was pummeled with fists and whipped with a 4-foot, folded electrical cord on the back and elsewhere, suffering injuries to his torso and genitals.

Authorities said the meeting was called because Lucas Leonard had indicated he wanted to leave the secretive church.

Police have said church members were trying to get the brothers to confess their sins and seek forgiveness. After hours of being pounded with fists, whipped with cords and kicked, the elder teen died, and his brother was hospitalized.

After the attack, the beating victims' relatives refused to tell officers where to find the injured Christopher Leonard, who ultimately was located on the church's second floor.

Garramone has said the mother felt helpless to stop an 'intervention' that she didn't expect to become so harsh and he didn't believe she caused the fatal injuries. 

Daniel Irwin, a Word of Life deacon, claimed he heard the pastor at the Life Christian Church in New Hartford, New York tell the congregation that someone was practicing witchcraft.

The New York Times reported that a witness claimed Leonard had admitted to casting spells and said he wanted church elders to die. Leonard also allegedly said he wanted to make a voodoo doll of the church leader.

Members of the church have also rejected his father's assertions that he had been punished for molesting children who also belonged to Word of Life.

‘We still have not concluded why the session turned so violent,’ Chief Michael S. Inserra of the New Hartford Police Department said.

Daniel Irwin, previously testified in court that he saw Bruce Leonard whip his sons with what appeared to be a belt.

Irwin said he occasionally looked in on the session that started Sunday night and continued for over 12 hours, and he saw 19-year-old Lucas bleeding and in distress.

'Lucas was rolling himself back and forth on the floor and making a sustained monotone moaning,' recalled Irwin, who said he didn't stay for long.

He testified that he got a text message after services ended around 8pm Sunday saying the Leonard family would be part of a counseling session with Pastor Tiffanie Irwin - his sister. Irwin said he wasn't told what the session was about.

Raised voices prompted Irwin to move five children who were in room near the sanctuary to another space farther away, so they wouldn't be scared.

Watching through a doorway window around 10pm, Irwin said, he saw Bruce Leonard hit Lucas up to six times and also hit Christopher. They winced, Irwin said, but Lucas didn't try to defend himself.

At various points, Bruce Leonard and Tiffanie Irwin asked Lucas questions — Irwin didn't say what they were — and the young man answered yes and no.

Around 10am Monday, panicked church members ran up to Irwin and said they thought Lucas was dead.

Irwin dashed into the sanctuary to find the teen lying motionless on the floor, with Bruce Leonard, Christopher Leonard and the witness' mother, church spiritual leader Traci Irwin, trying to resuscitate him.

After 10 minutes, Irwin helped load the injured teen into a van to be taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Bruce Leonard's lawyer, Donald Gerace, said the episode 'could just as well have taken place outside the church.' He said the Leonards had no intention of seriously injuring their son.

Neighbors have described the Leonards as a highly religious family that largely shunned the outside world.

But a relative's picture on Instagram shows another side. The photo shows Deborah and Bruce Leonard as they beam at the camera during a wedding anniversary outing.

'The most genuine and caring people I have ever known,' her son Whitney Gilmore captioned the photo.

The church has existed for as many as 30 years in a rural part of New Hartford, a town of 22,000 people about 50 miles from Syracuse.
It once had 40 or more members but now counts closer to 20, New Hartford police Chief Michael Inserra said after the attack.

The Word of Life Church's inner workings have been laid bare by one of its original members, who described how its founder turned it from a Christian group to one where its members were exploited for his gain.

Gregory Ames, 55, of Oneida County, New York, was eventually forced out by its charismatic founder, Pastor Jerry Irwin, after years in which he describes himself as having been a hostage in his own mind.

'No one was held hostage there, that door was wide open,' he told Daily Mail Online. 'The hostage was in your own head.'

The sect now occupies a former school building in the hamlet of Chadwicks, Oneida County, in upstate New York.

Ames said he believed the sect had taken a dark turn - and that the current leadership of the church had to be held accountable.

'What happened in that church was a form of deception, they lost themselves basically,' he told Daily Mail Online.

'They believed the lie. I believe they gave into the enemy - the devil.

'I know that the Leonards loved their children and what happened was a tragedy. Something clicked in them.

'Bruce and Deborah are good people but they were mixed up. They were brought to the point where anger was built up inside of them and they were trying to please the leadership.'

However he added: 'But Bruce is not a victim, he's a man who can think for himself. The victims are the children of the church.'

Ames said the origin of the cult was innocent and Christian. The church was founded by Irwin in in Richfield Springs in Otsego County, New York and then moved 15 miles to the cellar of a couple's home in nearby Bridgewater.

Ames joined Word of Life around 1987 when his brother, Douglas, an evangelist, introduced him to the services.

Irwin had a second wife Traci and four children - Tiffany, Ruth Ann, Daniel and Joseph. His wife was pleasant, recalled Ames, but added: 'Jerry wasn't the easiest guy to live with.

'He was a very paranoid person. He was paranoid of the whole world - everything was a conspiracy.

'He only trusted his daughter, Tiffany. I don't know why it was Tiffany he trusted but she was his shadow. She served him and did what daddy wanted.'

He added: 'Jerry was a man who wanted to serve God, there was a lot of him that was good. He was tender-hearted man and he strived for perfection.

'But he was a little disturbed – he had demons that tormented him. At times, he seemed to hate confrontation and wanted to be seclusion, like he wanted to be away on the furthest desert island by himself.

'But he had a Jekyll and Hyde mentality. One time, he'd be very pleasant and then another time, you wouldn't be sure who you were getting.'
Gregory and his family left the church in 2002.

'Jerry kicked me out of the church because I didn't adhere to Jerry's teaching. The leader wouldn't do any dirty work - someone else told me.

'I refused for a whole year to leave and it wasn't nice. You went to church and didn't know what was going to happen, when he was going to tear you apart. Jerry really tore people apart. You could never come up to his level.'

What made the change in Irwin increasingly clear was the direction of money. In 1993, the church had bought a former school building.

The building also houses the sanctuary where the children of the church were educated. The teaching staff was minimal at best.

''The kids were overseeing other kids,' he said. 'There wasn't really a teacher. My sister-in-law was a registered teacher there for a while but Jerry had it in for her. He came up with things and said the 'Lord told him'.

The head of teaching was Irwin's daughter, Traci, now in charge of the church, while Linda Morey - one of those on trial - was a helper.

His brother Douglas Ames left Word Of Life Church - two years after Gregory. 'I prayed that he would leave,' he said.

Jerry Irwin had died several years ago, around the age of 60, while on a road trip to a religious meeting with his family in the Midwest, Lt Timothy O'Neill, with the New Hartford Police Department, said. He believed that he died of a heart attack or stroke.

Following his death, his wife Traci and daughter, Tiffany, took the reins.

Lt O'Neill said: 'We didn't really have any issues with the church. If we went down there, it was exclusively because they called us to deal with disorderly conduct, young people throwing rocks at the building or yelling profanities.

'If people were uncomfortable with the church, that's a different matter but it's not illegal to have a building and operate a church.'

Lt O'Neill said the police department was actively seeking to speak with any former members of the church following the teen's killing. 

'Thus far, we have not been told of any reports of the physical abuse like have been noted here. Pastor Tiffany and her brothers were not known to police for other crimes,' he said.

Ames said he did not know if he was shocked by teen's death.

'I can't believe this is what they've come to. God doesn't tell us to kill people. I don't know what happened - but I can tell you the devil is to blame.' 

Ames added: 'You're going to hear how he did evil – and he did do evil. But the difference was Jerry didn't teach his children correctly and he handed over everything to them.

'The children weren't taught how to handle those demonic forces. You've got a Jerry – but much worse than Jerry.

'The next generation - they were into the physical. Say you look at a tree - its branches, its leaves and you say, its an apple tree - and everything shows you it is an apple tree. But then the fruit that comes out and they are oranges - the fruit doesn't match the tree.

'You know people by the fruit of their actions - and when the roots aren't in the right place.'

From counseling sessionto 'murder': How in just one nigh, cult spiraled out of control

Daniel Irwin, the church deacon, testified he got a text message after services ended around 8pm on October 11 saying the Leonard family would be part of a counseling session with the church's pastor, Tiffanie Irwin, his sister. Irwin said he wasn't told what the session was about and didn't participate.

Watching through a window around 10 p.m., Irwin said, he saw Bruce Leonard hit Lucas up to six times with what appeared to be a belt and hit Christopher. The young men winced, Irwin said, but Lucas didn't try to defend himself.

Their mother hit Lucas with a cord out of anger over 'things that he had said,' investigator Todd Grant testified. He didn't ask her what those things were.

Survivor Christopher Lucas told the court this week said he did not fight back during the beating, in which a 'whip' made of an electrical cord was used. 'I held out my hands to stop the whip,' he said.

The teenager was restrained at one point during the beating, he said, without specifying whether he was tied up or held down by one of the alleged assailants.

Near the end of the ordeal, Christopher Leonard said he was forced to wear ear plugs, ear muffs and was placed in a corner facing away from his brother.

When he eventually turned around, he saw Lucas lying on the ground and apparently not breathing.

Around 10am on Monday, panicked church members ran up to Daniel Irwin and said they thought Lucas was dead.

Irwin said he dashed into the sanctuary to find Lucas lying motionless on the floor, with the young man's father and brother and Irwin's mother, church spiritual leader Traci Irwin, trying to resuscitate him.

The teenagers were eventually loaded into two vans, he said. Lucas Leonard was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Christopher Leonard was also driven to the hospital by unnamed parishioners, but the group decided at the last-minute to skip the hospital and instead take him back to the church, he testified.

Accusations were made that Lucas and Christopher Leonard may have molested children at the church but Lt. O'Neill said the allegations were 'all lies – started by the church'.

O'Neill said: 'After examining and interviewing all the children within the church, there was no evidence or basis of sexual abuse. The accusations were a smokescreen.

'When Lucas was brought to hospital, his father told police officers at the scene that his son was a pedophile and child abuser.

'It was very accusatory – not the typical reaction of traumatized parents who have lost a child. Typically they are demanding for answers and justice.'

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