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Parents charged after teenager is beaten to death in secretive church "confession" ritual

Lucas Leonard’s parents and sister are accused of beating him to death at the isolated Word of Life church.

101315 leonard MDD Bruce and Deborah Leonard Source: AP

TWO TEENAGE BROTHERS were brutally beaten in church — one fatally — in an effort by their parents, sister and other members to get them to confess their sins, police said this week.

The killing, which involves an insular congregation called the Word of Life church in New York state, has sparked gossip and suspicion among neighbours.

Police said spiritual “counseling” at the Word of Life church turned into an hours-long attack last Sunday night.

There, 19-year-old Lucas Leonard and his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, were pummelled with fists and kicked.

They suffered injuries to the abdomen, genitals, back and thighs.

Eventually, Lucas stopped breathing and relatives took him to hospital, where he died in the early hours of Monday, police said.

Authorities went to the church and found his younger brother, who was hospitalised in serious condition.

“Both brothers were subjected to physical punishment over the course of several hours, in hopes that each would confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness,” Police Chief Michael Inserra said.

He said investigators have not determined what the supposed sins were.

newhartfordsuspects (Clockwise from top left) Bruce Leonard, Deborah Leonard, Sarah Ferguson, Joseph Irwin, Linda Morey, David Morey. Source: New Hartford Police

The brothers’ parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard, were charged with manslaughter in Lucas’ death.

Four other adults were charged with assault in the younger brother’s beating, including Sarah Ferguson, 33, the victims’ sister.

The beatings took place at a red-brick former primary school that serves as both a church and a home for several members of the congregation, including one of the suspects.

The church has existed for as many as 30 years in New Hartford, a once-thriving mill town of 22,000 people about 50 miles from Syracuse, and 250 miles north of New York City.

“I’m really afraid. In my heart I don’t think this is the first incident,” said Eva Monaghan, who lives around the corner.

Over all the years, I can’t imagine this is the first thing. Maybe nothing as bad. Around town, it’s considered a cult.

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The police chief, however, said he had no indication Word of Life was anything but a church and a home.

101315 leonard MDD The Word of Life Christian church in Chadwicks, New York. Source: AP

Tara Litz, who used to live next door, said:

I never really had any problems with them, but I did see a lot of sketchy things regarding stuff in my backyard, weird hours of the night, weird chanting, humming.

Nancy Kneller, who used to work at a Catholic church next door, said residents had long been suspicious of the place.

Why are they so secretive? Why are there no kids out playing?

Still, she added, “I think they’re good people that made a bad decision.”

Nearby, in the village where the Leonard brothers lived with their parents, neighbours recalled a deeply religious family that kept mostly to itself.

All the suspects pleaded not guilty, and on Thursday, a lawyer for Lucas Leonard’s mother Deborah said the beating spiralled out of control when she was too “meek and timid” to stop it.

“It looks like she went along with it, and it spun out of control,” Devin Garramone said.

This woman is so meek and timid, she didn’t have the temerity to stand up to them and say, ‘You’re not punishing my kid. You’re not doing this.’

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Associated Press

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