Did This Pastor Drive Her Flock to Beat Teen to Death?
The pastor of a reclusive upstate New York church incited her flock to brutally beat two teenage brothers—one to death—by claiming they practiced witchcraft, new court filings allege.
Tiffanie Irwin told members of the Word of Life Christian Church that Lucas and Christopher Leonard used voodoo dolls, sexually fantasized about her, and plotted to kill their own parents, according to documents first published by the Utica Observer-Dispatch.
Those accusations turned deadly the night of Oct. 11, 2015, when members of the Chadwicks church savagely pummeled Lucas Leonard, 19, and Christopher Leonard, 17—kicking, punching, and whipping them with extension cords over a stretch of 14 hours, after they refused to repent for their “sins,” authorities say.
Lucas Leonard died of his injuries Oct. 12 after relatives rushed him to a hospital. An autopsy revealed he suffered multiple contusions to the torso and extremities. His brother survived and is now under the care of the state.
About a week after the assault inside the sanctuary, Christopher Leonard testified that he tried to save his brother’s life using CPR. He had watched Lucas moan and collapse to the ground following the spiritual “counseling session,” he said.
The deadly beatdown, allegedly carried out by eight church members, came hours after Irwin allegedly confronted Lucas Leonard over his desire to leave the parish, which operates out of a sprawling former high school building that is gated off from the rest of New Hartford, New York.
Irwin goaded congregants—including the Leonards’ own parents—into beating the teens after hurling a string of accusations that also included watching pornography and sexually abusing children, court papers allege. (Police have said they found no evidence of sexual abuse or witchcraft.)
“Such allegations were brought by [Irwin] with the intent to enrage and infuriate” the teen’s parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard, and Sarah Ferguson, their half-sister, the documents state, “or under circumstances that rendered such emotional responses a reasonable possibility.”
The court papers—reviewed by The Daily Beast—paint a horrific picture of how church members whipped, punched, and kicked the helpless brothers to the point of gruesome and lethal injury.
The district attorney alleges that “during the assault, Lucas Leonard's penis was lacerated. As a result of this injury ... he lost a significant about of blood that ultimately saturated the crotch area and left leg of the pants he was wearing.”
After the deranged worshippers beat Lucas within inches of his life, they left him to die, the court documents state.
“As a result of the totality of injuries inflicted upon Lucas Leonard ... and the failure of [Irwin] and co-defendants to provide and/or seek medical attention for Lucas Leonard, a vulnerable victim, such actions and inactions” caused his death, the document continues.
Christopher was also lashed with a power cord in the groin area. The DA charges that the church members “intentionally struck” him with “the intent to cause serious and protracted disfigurement ... or impairment of the function of any bodily organ.”
The documents, provided by the Oneida County district attorney’s office, indicate churchgoers believed Irwin was a prophet and had ultimate authority within the sect, which neighbors have long considered a cult. According to the court papers, “the Leonard family was forced to stay at the facility and engage in a counseling session conducted by” Pastor Irwin.
Indeed, Deborah Leonard described Irwin as a “prophet” during a December court appearance.
The mother took a plea deal to reduced charges of first-degree assault and will serve five years in state prison, CNY Central reported. She is expected to testify against her husband, Bruce, and fellow members.
In court, Deborah Leonard cried as she described using an extension cord to whip both of her sons in their upper chests, the TV station reported. She said Lucas had begun secretly attending services at another church in August 2015—two months before he was beaten to death.
His mother told prosecutors that Irwin was a “prophet” who was in charge of the “counseling session.” If the pastor had said “stop,” the fatal beating would have stopped, Deborah Leonard said, according to Syracuse.com.
On Monday, Irwin rejected a plea deal of 18 years to life in prison, and so far most of her flock has followed suit.
Oneida County district attorney Scott McNamara said he requested a sentence of no less than 18 years for Irwin.
“We haven’t made them offers that, in my opinion, would entice people to take a plea deal,” McNamara told The Daily Beast. “All these offers include a life sentence on the end.”
“Based on what happened here, the offer is the least amount of time they should do for what they did to Lucas and Christopher,” he added.
McNamara said he anticipates two trials: one with two defendants, and another with the remaining six accused.
“We have a deceased young man that shouldn’t be dead, and it is a murder, it is a homicide. With that should come a certain level of punishment, especially when you look at the way we’re alleging he died,” McNamara said.
The DA told The Daily Beast that observers should wait for the trial “to determine who’s culpable and at what level.”
The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office have contacted the district attorney about prosecuting the case, according to the Observer-Dispatch. The feds may also eye civil rights violations, the paper reported.
Authorities have charged Tiffanie Irwin and her mother, Traci Irwin, 49, deemed the flock’s “spiritual leader”; her brother Joseph Irwin; members David Morey, 26, and Linda Morey, 54; Bruce Leonard, 65, and Sarah Ferguson, 33.
Seven of the eight remaining suspects are facing second-degree murder charges and are heading to trial. All eight are charged with manslaughter, kidnapping, assault, and gang assault for the brutal episode.
The teens’ father, Bruce, is slated to appear in court Jan. 19 to accept or decline a plea deal from prosecutors, though details of the offer haven’t been released.