NEW HARTFORD, N.Y. (AP) — A mother charged with killing her teenage son in a church felt helpless to stop an “intervention” that spiraled into a severe beating, her lawyer says. An attorney for the son’s father says what happened stemmed from a family matter unrelated to the church and the parents didn’t intend their son’s grave injuries.
Now prosecutors are due to discuss what they think happened Sunday at the Word of Life Christian Church. The parents and four others charged in the beatings are due in court Friday, when prosecutors must reveal enough of their case to try to persuade a judge to hold the defendants for a grand jury to decide whether to indict them.
Police say a spiritual “counseling session” devolved into violence, as members tried to get Lucas Leonard, 19, and his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, to confess sins and seek forgiveness. After hours of being pounded with fists and kicked, the elder teen died and his brother was hospitalized with serious injuries.
“We want to understand why this happened, how this session got so out of control that it cost the life of a young man,” New Hartford Police Chief Michael Inserra said. Police say they aren’t certain why the teens were being punished.
The teens’ parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard, are charged with manslaughter, while the victims’ 33-year-old sister and three other people face assault charges. All have pleaded not guilty.
Deborah Leonard didn’t anticipate how harsh the intervention would become and didn’t “have the mental toughness to stand up and say, ‘Wait a minute — this is going too far,'” said her lawyer, Devin Garramone. He believes she didn’t cause the fatal injuries.
Bruce Leonard’s lawyer, Donald Gerace, said the Leonards had no intention of seriously injuring their sons, and the encounter “could just as well have taken place outside the church.”
Lawyers for the other defendants haven’t commented.
As the parents’ accounts of the beating began to emerge Thursday, so did contrasting views of the family and the secluded, small-town congregation in central New York state.
Some of the Leonards’ neighbors have described a highly religious family that largely shunned the outside world. But a relative’s Instagram account shows a different side of the Leonards.
“The most genuine and caring people I have ever known,” Whitney Gilmore captioned an Instagram photo of his mother and stepfather, Deborah and Bruce Leonard, beaming at the camera during a wedding anniversary outing.
The roughly 30-year-old Word of Life church once had perhaps 40 or more members but now counts closer to 20, Inserra said. Some live at the church, which occupies a former school in a hamlet about 50 miles from Syracuse.
To some local residents, it was a strangely secretive church where the doors weren’t open, dogs barked and people were rarely seen coming and going. Even the pastor at a church next door, the Rev. Abraham Esper, said he’d had little contact with Word of Life except in letters he wrote complaining about noisy dogs and music.
The police chief said the congregants kept so much to themselves that they didn’t want to let firefighters in after a blaze several years ago. The members extinguished it themselves.
Devoted to spiritual leader Traci Irwin and pastor Tiffanie Irwin, members often “wait to be told what to do,” said Inserra. After the attack, the beating victims’ relatives wouldn’t tell officers where to find the injured Christopher Leonard, who ultimately was located on the church’s second floor, the chief said.
The Irwins — Traci is Tiffanie’s mother — haven’t been charged and haven’t commented. Prosecutors subpoenaed Tiffanie Irwin’s brother, Daniel, to testify Friday.
Gerace said Word of Life was much like many churches, holding regular services and Bible study and providing food to the needy.
When local resident Sarah Gendron went to a service about eight years ago, she left with an impression of good, giving people.
“A cool Christian church,” she said. “Very family-oriented.”
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