Word of Life: 'Financial crime that went bad'

Observer-Dispatch, New York/October 28, 2016

By Micaela Parker

Utica -- The Word of Life Christian Church tragedy was a multifaceted case, ranging from financial coersion to mind control, according to the case’s top prosecutor.

Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara discussed the case in a recent interview now that all nine defendants have either accepted plea offers and are awaiting sentencing, or already have been sentenced. All were accused of varying degrees of involvement in a 12-hour Oct. 11, 2015, counseling session that spanned into the next day at the Chadwicks church that involved beating 19-year-old Lucas Leonard, who died from his injuries, and 17-year-old Christopher Leonard, who was seriously injured.

Some defense attorneys associated with the case were approached for comment but declined citing a gag order. McNamara said it was his understanding that all parties involved could talk to the media as long as they limited their comments until all the defendants have been sentenced.

“I have alleged and I will continue to allege that this was a financial crime that went bad,” McNamara said. “The Irwins used the church to bilk people out of 10 percent of their income on a weekly basis. In order to do that you have to convince them that they have to give (the money) because God said so. Then it spins, and the next thing you know people are talking to God and people are sinning and they have to address that.”

According to his office’s analysis, he estimated the Irwins received about $100,000 a year from the church’s congregation through tithing. He said the Irwin family convinced parishioners that Pastor Tiffanie Irwin could talk to God, and in order for congregants to go to heaven “they would have to make Tiffanie happy.”

McNamara also said there was coercive persuasion at play, including “thought reform or mind control that takes place over a long period of time and is subtle” amid the use of tactics such as sleep deprivation and public shaming.

He alleged the “thought reform” used by Tiffanie Irwin involved redefining concepts, especially those concerning sexual acts. That factor comes into play when considering victim Christopher Leonard’s admittance on the stand to “inappropriately touching” his half-sister Sarah Ferguson’s children.

“Over a long period of time, years, (Tiffanie) redefined molestation, and basically put a lot of attention on the boys and made accusations about them sinning and committing lustful acts,” he said. “The first problem with that is when she redefines 'molest,' it includes a list of things people wouldn’t consider molestation. When someone is accused, we typically think that they either one way or another had physical contact with another person’s sex organs or some kind of penetration. The following things wouldn’t be molestation: bear hugging someone, putting someone in a bear hug and wrestling with them — that’s typical teenage boys messing around. The motivation isn’t sex; it's joking and kidding.”

He stressed that physical exams were conducted on three of Ferguson’s four children as a result of Lucas’ and Christopher’s counseling session confessions that they raped them and sexually assaulted other children in Chadwicks, but they found no signs of trauma on the children. Additional children who knew the teens and were alleged to have been assaulted were interviewed but said they never were touched inappropriately by either of the boys.

“As to what Chris was actually talking about (when he admitted to inappropriately touching children), I suspect the redefinition of molesting,” McNamara said. “I didn’t ask him. I couldn’t ask him because if I compelled him to tell me I’d have to read him his rights.”

He also alleged that Tiffanie Irwin was able to “create memories” in people by alleging that God told her things the party didn’t remember because a demon was possessing them and blocking their memories. He couldn’t comment on if this was the case with the teen’s younger sister, who testified that her brothers touched her inappropriately as a child. She's not being identified by the O-D because she alleges she is the victim of a sex crime.

“The thing (their sister) said during testimony, that if they would have just told the truth the beating would have stopped — she described it as they were being asked how they got into Ferguson’s apartment to rape (her) child,” McNamara said. “They kept coming up with these — as (the sister) said ‘crazy’ ways — of doing it that were physically impossible. Sliding under the door, breaking open the lock even though it was intact, climbing through the second-floor window. They couldn’t explain it because they didn’t.”

Case at a glance

* Two brothers - one of whom later died - were severely beaten inside Word of Life Christian Church in Chadwicks. The beatings began the night of Sunday, Oct. 11, 2015, and lasted until the next morning.

* Lucas Leonard, 19, died. His brother Christopher, then 17, was severely injured.

* Both victims suffered injuries to their stomachs, genitals, backs and thighs, police said, after enduring beatings during what police called a counseling session "in hopes that each would confess their prior sins and ask for forgiveness."

*The victims' half-sister Sarah Ferguson was sentenced to 25 years in state prison following her conviction of first-degree manslaughter, two counts of first-degree assault and two counts of first-degree gang assault after a June bench trial.

* The victims' mother, Deborah Leonard, 59, of Clayville, accepted a plea offer Dec. 2, 2015, from the Oneida County District Attorney's Office to five years in state prison for first-degree assault in the death of Lucas and two years in prison for second-degree assault for the beating of Christopher. The victims' father, Bruce Leonard, pleaded guilty to the same in June in return for a sentence of a maximum of 16 years in state prison. They do not have a sentencing date set yet.

*Co-defendants Traci Irwin, 50, and Daniel Irwin, 25, took plea offers in October 2016 to first-degree criminal imprisonment for their involvement in return for two years in Oneida County jail. They took Alford pleas, meaning they did not admit to any criminal act. Traci Irwin is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 5, while Daniel Irwin is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 9.

*Church Pastor Tiffanie Irwin took a plea on Oct. 21, 2016, to third-degree manslaughter and second-degree assault. She'll face 12 years in state prison and will be sentenced Monday, Dec. 19. Her brother Joseph Irwin will be sentenced on the same day, following his guilty plea to felony first-degree gang assault and second-degree assault. He's facing eight years in prison.

*Mother-and-son co-defendants Linda Morey and David Morey pleaded guilty to two counts of felony second-degree assault and will face five-year prison sentences. They'll be sentenced Monday, Jan. 9.

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