Teen beaten to death at church counselling session, pastor pleads guilty
UTICA, N.Y. – The pastor of a small church where two brothers were beaten for hours during a counselling session that she called pleaded guilty on Friday to manslaughter and assault.
Three other church members admitted to less serious charges for their roles in the all-night beatings that killed Lucas Leonard, 19, and injured Christopher Leonard, 17, last October.
Word of Life Christian Church Pastor Tiffanie Irwin, her brother Joseph Irwin and mother and son church members Linda Morey and David Morey were the last of nine people charged to be convicted in the attack, which investigators say took place after the brothers discussed leaving the congregation. Joseph Irwin and the Moreys each pleaded guilty to assault.
Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara called the case “a terrible tragedy.”
“I can only hope that Luke can rest in peace, Chris can get on with his life,” McNamara said.
The victims’ parents and half-sister and the pastor’s mother and a second brother were among those charged after members of the secretive church took the bloodied body of Lucas Leonard to a hospital, where doctors initially thought he had been shot. Authorities later found his badly injured brother still inside the converted New Hartford school building that housed the church and living space for its leaders.
Christopher Leonard testified at an earlier hearing that Tiffanie Irwin asked his family and some others to stay behind for a meeting after an eight-hour Sunday service last October. Over the next 14 hours, he said, he and his brother were pummeled in their torsos and genitals with an electrical cord.
McNamara has said the brothers were ordered during the beating to repent for a variety of sins, including using a voodoo doll. Police have said there was no evidence to support a claim by their half-sister, Sarah Ferguson, that they had molested her children.
Ferguson was convicted of manslaughter and assault after a non-jury trial in July. The only defendant to decline a plea deal, she was sentenced last month to 25 years in prison.
The victims’ parents, Deborah and Bruce Leonard, pleaded guilty to assault. The church’s matriarch, Traci Irwin, and her son Daniel Irwin, a deacon, admitted to counts of unlawful imprisonment.
Sentencings are scheduled for December and January.