A counseling session on the spiritual state of two brothers turned physical at Word of Life Christian Church in New Hartford, New York, resulting in the death of a young man and serious injuries to his brother, New Hartford Police Chief Michael Inserra said Wednesday.
Their parents, Bruce T. Leonard, 65, and Deborah R. Leonard, 59, each face one count of first-degree manslaughter, a Class B felony. The Leonards were each ordered held on $100,000 bail at arraignment Wednesday. Four other church members were charged with second-degree assault, also a felony.
Family members took Lucas Leonard, 19, by car Monday afternoon to a hospital in nearby Utica. New Hartford police said Leonard was injured during an assault and was pronounced dead Monday at the hospital.
Leonard’s 17-year-old brother, Christopher, was hospitalized in serious condition after suffering blunt force trauma injuries also, police said.
The assaults occurred after a Sunday night service at the church, which is located about 250 miles north of New York City. The congregation held what Inserra called a “counseling session” for the two brothers.
But the session became violent, the police chief said.
“Both brothers were continually subjected to physical punishment over the course of several hours in the hopes that each would confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness,” he said.
On Monday, Lucas Leonard was taken to the hospital after church members found he wasn’t breathing, Inserra said. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
An autopsy showed Leonard suffered multiple contusions from blunt force trauma to the torso and extremities, Inserra said.
“It was determined that the combination of injuries and the duration of assault contributed to his death,” Inserra said, adding that the cause of death was pending further examination.
Police were originally called to the hospital and told that Leonard had been shot. Inserra said the shooting report was unfounded. Police learned of the assaults after interviewing church members.
Authorities found several children in the church and called in child protective services.
‘I don’t believe there was any intent’
Don Gerace, attorney for Bruce Leonard, has entered a not guilty plea on behalf of his client, whom he said has no criminal history and has lived in the community more than two decades. Leonard has been a church member for eight years.
“In the state of New York he is charged with manslaughter in the first degree, which requires intent to cause serious bodily injury and I do not believe there was any intent,” Gerace said.
Deborah Leonard’s attorney, Devin Garramone, said his client had a stent put in due to a heart condition and requires constant medical attention.
“I cannot imagine my client had anything to do with these injuries, especially in the condition she is in,” he said.
Bail for the other four church members was set Wednesday at $50,000 each.
Inserra identified them as as Joseph Irwin, David Morey, Linda Morey and Sarah Ferguson.
‘Quite a shock’
A former Word of Life church member, who asked not to be identified, said she used to babysit the teenage brothers. The allegations are shocking, she said.
The church, which began in 1984, has about five families, or about 35 members, including children, according to the former member. She described the congregation as a “makeshift family” that had been together for 25 years.
“We weren’t originally isolated from the community,” she said.
Over time, there was friction between the church and a neighboring community, she said.
“We put up the hedges,” she said.
“Then the neighbors got angry because they couldn’t see what’s going on anymore.”
But the ex-member denied reports the church is a cult.
“I realize this situation makes it look like this,” she said, “but if you listen to the teachings, they are accurate to the Bible.”
Responding to a reporter’s question, Inserra said he had no information about whether the group is a cult.
Utica School District has employed Bruce Leonard as a teaching assistant since 2007, Proctor High School principal Steven Falchi told CNN. He has been at Proctor High School in Utica since 2010, Falchi said.
Leonard works with a certified teacher and other teaching assistants in the special education department, Falchi said. He works with “severely and profoundly disabled students,” Falchi said.
“We were very shocked to learn the news,” said Falchi, adding he was not aware of previous complaints or disciplinary action against Leonard. “He was a hard worker and was exceptionally compassionate about his work with our students. It came as quite a shock.”
Lucas Leonard and his younger brother were home-schooled, according to Ronald Wheelock, superintendent for Sauquoit Valley Central School District.
The school district’s involvement with the teens was limited, with the parents sending the district curriculum proposals at the beginning of the year, Wheelock said.
Not a mainline church
The Rev. Abraham Esper of St. Patrick’s-St. Anthony’s Church in Chadwicks told CNN that Word of Life was not a “mainline” church and members had little interaction with neighbors.
“It’s very closed in,” he said of the nearby church, adding that the only contact came during rummage sales and flea markets outside Word of Life.
Esper said there was “very loud and very disruptive” noise at the church some afternoons and nights, including the beat of drums and barking dogs.
“You couldn’t concentrate,” he said.
Esper said a locked gate obscures a parking lot behind Word of Life church.
Longtime resident Lynn Laventure, whose parents live across the street, said the 20 or so church members kept to themselves and “never disturbed anybody.”
“It makes me wonder what is going on if this is a church and it’s of God,” she said. “There is such thing as a child having to have a punishment if something was wrong … but not a beating. We would have never in a million years guessed anything was … wrong.”