What We Know About the Secretive Upstate New York Church Where a Teenager Was Beaten to Death

After the death of 19-year-old Lucas Leonard, the Word of Life, in New Hartford, is making national headlines.

by Allie Conti
16 October 2015, 6:45pm

Mug shots of the six people charged after the beating incident. Image via Fox59

In New Hartford, New York, there's a three-story brick building from which people in long black trench coats are said to come and go at 3 AM. Outside the converted schoolhouse is a sign that reads, "Welcome to the Word of Life," and children are seen there performing yard work. Women are rarely spotted on the premises without men, and the bathrooms are helpfully labeled "Adam" and "Eve."

This eerie upstate community—once a closed-off mystery and source of anxiety to neighbors—is now being picked apart in an investigation into a 19-year-old's death, the details of which sound like they are set in a Southern Gothic short story rather than a New York State suburb. Police say that on Tuesday, Lucas Leonard was fatally beaten and his 17-year-old brother was severely injured during a counseling session, possibly because one of them had plans to leave the church.

The brothers' parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard, have been charged with first-degree manslaughter, and four other members of the cultish church have been charged with assault. All have pleaded not guilty, according to the New York Times, and an attorney for Deborah Leonard has claimed there was reason to suspect that the brothers were molesting children in the church. (On Thursday, he told the Associated Press the "intervention" spiraled out of control and she felt helpless to stop it.)

Officers with the New Hartford Police Department, for their part, say there's no evidence to back up claims of molestation or sexual misconduct.

So prosecutors and police are left to piece together what exactly what happened inside Word of Life on Tuesday, and why. Chadwick Handville, a former member, told the Times that a man named Jerry Irwin had founded it in the 80s. He apparently disappeared for a while, and then came back in the 90s, ousting the leadership and subjecting the congregation to systematic abuse. Apparently, one of this tactics for getting people to do physical labor was to deprive them of sleep so they would become more open to suggestion.

"Soon he became the only authority in that church, the sole authority," Handville told the Times. "Then things broke down: respect for each other, respect for the law, respect for other people."

Irwin died a few years ago leaving his wife, Traci, as the church's spiritual leader (members reportedly referred to her as "Mother"). His daughter, Tiffanie, became the pastor, and the 29-year-old was the one who allegedly called the counseling session that went wrong on Tuesday.

Lucas Leonard died the day after that meeting, and his brother is still in the hospital with serious injuries. Joseph Irwin, who is 26 and Tiffanie's brother; Sarah Ferguson, who is 33 and the Leonard brothers's half-sister; David Morey, who is 26; and Linda Morey, who is 54, have been charged with felony assault.

Before their story made headlines, neighbors described the kids as polite and quiet. One told the Associated Press that Lucas and his younger brother weren't allowed to have sleepovers and were required to read the Bible for two hours every day. Another told the Times that his wife had given the family a Disney cartoon, but that the kids weren't allowed to watch it because "Mickey Mouse never married Minnie Mouse." The neighbor added that the Leonard home, which he has lived next to for eight years in the nearby village of Clayville, "stinks like hell."

The church used to be patrolled on Halloween to prevent vandalism, but after Leonard died, it was surrounded by heavily armored police vehicles and cops pointing riles, witnesses told the Syracuse Post-Dispatch. Eventually, at least seven children were taken from inside and placed in foster care.

Now the place sits empty, its once guarded-off entrance open to any reporter who cares to walk inside. According to one from the Post-Dispatch, things seem to have been abandoned quickly, and the space is in disarray with papers everywhere and sandwiches left half-eaten.

A preliminary hearing for the defendants was scheduled for Friday.

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