Ex-Member: Church Where Teen Was Beaten to Death Had History of Emotional Abuse
A former member of the shadowy Word of Life church, where two brothers were savagely beaten, reveals how the sect became more controlling and punishing.
On Sunday night, an ultra-secretive New York church turned into a living hell. Two teenage brothers were brutally beaten—one of them to death—by their own family members and fellow church-goers who wanted them to “confess” to their sins, authorities say.
Police charged the boys’ parents with manslaughter and four other participants with assault in the chilling incident that killed Lucas Leonard, 19, and left his 17-year-old brother, Christopher Leonard, in serious condition.
To neighbors, New Hartford’s Word of Life church is a “cult.” Those who live nearby point to the fence separating the red brick building—a sprawling former high school—from the community. Some say they’ve heard chants late at night and glimpsed men wearing long black trenchcoats. Others claim the gated church was breeding dogs, which were constantly barking.
But one former congregant, who was excommunicated from the mysterious flock, denied it was a cult. Members were never violent, she said. Rather, it was harassment by neighbors that forced the group into hiding, she said.
“Violence was never on the table,” the ex-member, who requested anonymity, told The Daily Beast. “We’re a Christian church for crying out loud. I have more questions than a normal person who can’t believe this happened in their community.”
“This is my family,” she added. “What have they done?”
Authorities got involved when Lucas Leonard’s relatives transported him to a local hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Staff alerted police and originally said Lucas was a gunshot victim. But he had no bullet wounds.
Instead, cops say, Lucas died of blunt force trauma to his abdomen, back, thighs, and genitals. Christopher, who suffered similar injuries, remains hospitalized.
At a press conference Wednesday, police chief Michael Inserra told reporters Lucas “died due to the hands of numerous people—a violent death over several hours.”
After initially interviewing family members and church folk about Lucas’s death, police discovered there might be another victim. It took investigators hours to find Christopher because of the “sketchy” information relatives gave to police, Inserra said.
The younger brother was discovered on the second floor of the three-story church building. Officers were able to persuade him to leave the building through a phone call. “He wasn’t in hiding,” Inserra said, “but he wasn’t making himself available and family members weren’t telling us where he was.”
Seven other children, ages 2 to 15, were also removed from the property and taken to Child Protective Services, police said.
It’s unclear why the deadly “counseling session” took place. Officers were told that the meeting was typically called by a pastor to discuss a member’s “spiritual state,” Inserra said.
The brothers were beaten “in the hopes that each would confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness,” Inserra said.
So far, six people have been charged for participating in the fatal incident, but Inserra told reporters more arrests and charges could be coming.
The teens’ parents, Bruce T. Leonard, 65, and Deborah R. Leonard, 59, were charged with manslaughter in the first degree.
Sarah L. Ferguson, 33, was charged with second-degree assault. Ferguson is Deborah Leonard’s daughter from a previous marriage, and the mother of four of the children pulled from the church on Monday.
Meanwhile, Joseph Irwin, 26, David J. Morey, 26, and Linda R. Morey, 54, are also facing second-degree assault charges.
“From the people that I knew, from the behavior that has been shown, something extreme… [must have] pushed them to that point to snap and do what they did,” said the exiled member, who was reeling over the allegations.
When she was in the church, counseling sessions only involved conversations, never physical attacks, she said. “It didn’t get heated,” the insider said. “I witnessed a couple of them, so I know first-hand. No one ever laid a hand on anyone.”
“When I first heard about this… you could have knocked me over with a feather,” she added. “I cannot believe this happened.”
The former member, who was banished for pursuing a college degree, said she and her family lived on the third floor of the former school—where, ironically, she was also home-schooled.
Neighborhood kids picked on her and other churchgoers, she claimed. Bullies often threw bottles and rocks at the church children, prompting parents to keep them inside—adding fuel to suspicions of secrecy on the part of the church.
The ex-worshiper said she called police on her neighborhood tormentors so many times, the dispatcher began to recognize her voice.
“Three particular families were troublemakers,” she said. “But the weird people that live in the old school building, they’re an easy target.”
“People think it’s really creepy to live in an old high school building,” she added. “It’s really not. I grew up there.”
Another excommunicated church member, Janet Sylvester, turned up on Word of Life’s doorstep as a pregnant, unmarried woman seeking a spiritual connection. It was the 1980s, and two of her brothers were already members.
Sylvester told The Daily Beast the church welcomed her with open arms.
According to Sylvester, Jerry Irwin, who is now deceased, founded the church in the ’80s. At the parish’s peak, it had approximately 25 to 30 people, she said. Members bought the current location in 1992.
By then, Irwin and his wife, Traci, had already left town for Rochester, New York, Sylvester claims. A pastor named Richard Wright took the reins in their absence.
Though she was raised by Baptist and Episcopalian parents, Sylvester said the Word of Life church was more akin to Charismatic Christianity—she said members believed in prophesying, religious healing, and speaking in tongues. To this day, she believes that at the beginning, Irwin’s heart was in the right place.
“When you have someone who prophesies or gives you the gift of knowledge...” Sylvester trailed off. “I’m sure Jerry was at first being led by the gift of God.”
Early on, pastors from a variety of denominations came to visit, and the church did local outreach. But a decade later, after Irwin had moved back from Rochester and returned to his position, and the church became “more controlling,” Sylvester said.
“We were told that Jerry was coming back, and that he was going to live there [in the school building],” she said. “So we all made him an apartment on the third floor. We as church members did all the work.”
Visits from outsiders ground to a halt, and members began turning on one another, Sylvester told The Daily Beast.
Once, a sister-in-law reported a snide comment Sylvester had made, and she was called before leadership. Another time, she was called in for a counseling session, when a church leader accused her husband of looking inappropriately at one of Bruce Leonard’s children, who was acting as their babysitter.
But the abuse was only emotional—never physical, Sylvester said. Jerry Irwin once told her that he had a revelation about her being a bitter person. “I remember going up [to the front of the room] not knowing what I was convicted of, but feeling shame and all of a sudden crying because, oh my gosh,” she said.
In 1995, Sylvester and her husband were accused of speaking badly of the church. He left, and she followed three months later. Sylvester was shunned by her siblings, who remained in the church long after her departure.
Eventually one of her brothers was excommunicated “for not conforming enough.” Another brother left.
The last one to defect was her sister, who married the brother of a church leader.
Still, Sylvester said she could never imagine Bruce and Deborah Leonard ever raising a fist to their children.
“What I would share with anyone, is that these people still need—as much as they anger me about what happened—they still need to know the love of Christ,” Sylvester said. “These are not evil people who are out to get or hurt purposefully. They are blinded by a false God.”