In an ugly turn to what already seemed like the most twisted case imaginable, a lawyer for parents accused of helping beat their 19-year-old son to death said the victim and his 17-year-old younger brother were initially confronted because they were suspected of "touching some of the other children" in the secretive New Hartford, New York church that the family belongs to. (The victim's name was Lucas Leonard; his brother Christopher was also beaten but survived.) A local police spokesman said, however, that the suggestion that the siblings had themselves abused children had been investigated and is "completely unfounded," while prosecutors say the siblings were actually attacked during a Word of Life Christan Church meeting that was held because of suspicions that Lucas was planning to leave the congregation. From the New York Times:
The meeting was orchestrated by the pastor, Tiffanie Irwin, 29, who called the teenagers into a sanctuary of the church’s three-story former schoolhouse, the authorities said. Her mother, Traci Irwin, is the congregation’s spiritual leader, and the congregants refer to her as Mother.
The beating began around 9 p.m. on Sunday and lasted until roughly 7 a.m. on Monday, the prosecutor, District Attorney Scott D. McNamara of Oneida County, said on Thursday.
Parents Bruce Leonard, 65, and Deborah Leonard, 59, are accused of manslaughter in Lucas' death; four other church members have been charged with assault for the attack on Christopher. Devin Garramone, an attorney representing Deborah Leonard, said that what began as a "mild flogging" in which his client did not participate had "spun out of control" and blamed Tiffanie Irwin for exercising poor judgment by allegedly calling the meeting to discuss molestation rumors.
A former parishoner told the Times that Tiffanie Irwin's father Jerry, the church's late founder, often humiliated church members by discussing their past misbehavior during sermons in which he was also known to use racial slurs. Another one of Irwin's children, Joseph, was arrested in Christopher Leonard's beating, as was the Leonard brothers' sister Sarah Ferguson.