The teenager who survived an hours-long beating inside a secretive New York church said his family whipped him and his brother for refusing to answer the pastor’s questions.
In his first testimony since the attack, Christopher Leonard said in court Wednesday that he tried administering CPR on his 19-year-old brother, Lucas, who died from the assault inside Word of Life Christian Church in New Hartford on Oct. 11.
“After the whipping, I was taken to the larger sanctuary and sat in the corner,” Leonard said, according to Syracuse.com. “I don’t know how long I sat there.”
Leonard watched his brother, who was moaning, collapse to the ground.
“I knew something wasn’t right,” Leonard said, adding that he tried to save his brother’s life by doing CPR, TWC News reported.
The revelations came at a preliminary hearing for his half-sister, Sarah Ferguson, who is one of six people facing charges in the incident. Ferguson, Joseph Irwin, and David and Linda Morey, are charged with assault. The teens’ parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard, are charged with manslaughter in Lucas’s death. All pleaded not guilty.
Ex-congregants previously told The Daily Beast the church, which inside a former high school building, was formed in the 1980s. Back then, former leader Jerry Irwin forced members to transform the third floor into living quarters for his family, they claimed.
Christopher Leonard, wearing a gray fleece jacket and glasses, was quiet on the stand as he described how pastor Tiffanie Irwin, 29, asked his family to stay after eight-hour Sunday church service.
Leonard said he and his brother, Lucas, were brought into the sanctuary to “talk about what we had done.”
When they refused to answer Irwin’s questions, they were punched and whipped by their own parents, sibling and fellow congregants. Christopher said he didn’t fight back, but held up his hands to stop them.
Lucas, 19, died from blunt force trauma a day after the spiritual “counseling session” turned into a vicious assault, prosecutors said. He was pronounced dead after church members brought him to a hospital the next day.
It’s unclear what prompted the savage attack. When a defense attorney for Ferguson asked why the meeting was called, the prosecution objected.
Last week, police said churchgoers beat the brothers to force them to “confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness.” Officials also said the meeting was called over Lucas’s desire to leave the church.
Another church member told investigators Lucas was fatally beaten after admitting to practicing witchcraft. The witness claimed the elder brother talked about making a Voodoo doll of a congregation leader.
While motive wasn’t discussed in court, Christopher painted a horrifying picture of what transpired inside the church.
Leonard told the court Tiffanie Irwin demanded that he and his brother stand in the middle of the sanctuary together and that her brother Joseph grabbed his shirt and punched him in the stomach after he refused to answer Tiffanie’s questions.
The rest of the group pummeled him with their fists. Leonard said his mother and Ferguson whipped him with a folded-over, 4-foot-long cord. Ferguson was hitting him all over his body, except his head, he testified.
After the nearly 12-hour beating, Leonard and his older brother were separated. Leonard said he was placed in a corner with earmuffs and earplugs so the members could continue interrogating Lucas.
Sometime later, he was reunited with the group and saw his brother fall over.
“I looked over and saw Luke on the ground,” he continued, the Utica Observer-Dispatch reported “I rushed over and saw he wasn’t breathing… Someone went up to find [spiritual leader Traci Irwin]—she was pressing on his chest while I tried to fill up his lungs.”
Church members decided to take Lucas to the hospital. Although he was in pain, Christopher was asked to help move scaffolding so the group could get the van out of a garage. He then grabbed his brother’s legs to help him into the vehicle.
Christopher was ordered to stay home while members transported Lucas to the hospital. Church members later drove Christopher to the hospital but they never went inside. Instead, they went to the parking lot of a Home Depot, where he had trouble breathing and vomited.
Reporters live-tweeting the court proceeding revealed Joseph Irwin, David Morey, and Leonard’s father, Bruce, got Christopher something to drink.
He was transported back to the church, where members made him a bed on the second floor and brought him food and water. He stayed there until a SWAT team escorted him out of the building Monday, he said.
After news broke of the arrests, one exiled member said, “We’re a Christian church for crying out loud …. This is my family. What have they done?”