After a regular Sunday service at Word of Life Christian Church, two teenage brothers were asked to wait around for a counseling session where the organization’s elders wanted to discuss with the children ‘what they had done’. According to the police, the parishioners –including the teenagers’ parents and sister– wanted the two to confess their prior sins and seek forgiveness for the same. When both brothers refused to talk, the night reportedly took a violent turn.
Lucas Leonard, 19, and his younger brother Christopher, 17, were apparently kicked, punched and whipped with a 4-foot-long folded electrical cord during the attack that started on October 11 and continued until the next day. While Lucas was pronounced dead upon arrival at the nearby hospital, Christopher was later admitted with grave injuries. Their parents, Bruce, 65 and Deborah, 59 –both of whom reside in Clayville– have been charged with manslaughter; while four other church members, including Sarah Ferguson, 33 (the teenagers’ half sister) were charged with assault.
During a court hearing on October 21, Christopher opened up for the first time since the horrifying incident and described all the events that led up to the death of his older brother Lucas.
“We asked him to do something that’s hard for anyone to do,” Oneida County District Attorney Scott D. McNamara told the media about Christopher’s testimony. “It’s especially hard for a 17-year-old to do.”
Even though many aspects of the fateful night are yet to be investigated, the police said that the teenagers’ counseling session appeared to stem from Lucas’ desire to leave the church. However, other church members argued that Lucas was giving them trouble for many things. While one elder said that Lucas had cursed all church members to die, Lucas’ father claimed that his son had molested a child. Yet, Chief Michael Inserra stressed that no evidence had been found to substantiate the above claims and it was evident that the two teenagers were the only victims of the horrifying crime.
On Wednesday, Christopher refused to talk about why his brother and he had been punished. Instead, he decided to focus only what the two boys had been made to go through. After walking into New Hartford’s courthouse, Leonard, clad in a pullover and a pair of sneakers, hung his head low for a long time as his loose curls swung over his glasses. When he started to talk, the court heard how Lucas and Christopher were made to stand in the church’s small sanctuary, where they agreed to answer only ‘some’ questions.
“A church member came over and grabbed the front of my shirt and punched me in the stomach,” he said.
For the next few hours, church members continued to beat the boys, opening wounds on their torsos and genitals, the police said.
“I held out my hands to stop the whip,” said Christopher.
At one point, Christopher was taken to another sanctuary inside the church, where the elders made him stand in the corner, before handing over earplugs or earmuffs to block out the noises stemming from Lucas’ interrogation.
“I don’t know how long I sat there,” he said.
When Christopher was eventually brought back to the first sanctuary, where his brother was apparently being interrogated, he found Lucas moaning in pain, before collapsing to the ground.
“I looked over and saw Luke on the ground,” he told the court. “I rushed over and saw he wasn’t breathing. I was trying to give him CPR. Someone went up to find [the pastor] — she was pressing on his chest while I tried to fill up his lungs.”
The following day, family members drove Lucas to St Luke’s Hospital, where he was pronounced dead upon arrival. Reportedly, Christopher was being taken to the same hospital but in a different vehicle. However, his family members abruptly decided to turn around and head back to the church, where one parishioner placed a mattress and a pillow on the second floor so Christopher could rest. The survivor slept off in no time and woke up later, when it hurt him to even breathe. By this time, he could not stop vomiting either.
“It hurt,” he said, “everywhere.”
Over time, Word of Life Christian Church, which happens to inhabit an old schoolhouse in New York, has managed to gain a reclusive status, even to its surrounding community.
An unidentified former church member, who used to babysit the two teenagers, told the media that the congregation now functions as a makeshift community.
“We weren’t originally isolated from the community,” she said, adding that over time issues arose between the church and its community. “We put up the hedges.”
The church member however denied reports that the congregation had turned into a cult, a claim that surfaced after several neighbors learned about the teenagers’ deadly attack.
The police said that Ferguson and three other church members had been charged with assault. The three others include Linda Morey, 54, David Morey, 26 and Joseph Irwin, 26. The judge at Ferguson’s hearing found that there was enough evidence to send the case to a grand jury.
Her attorney, Tom O’Brien III, told the media that she is a sweet lady who cares deeply about her children.
“We haven’t presented any evidence yet so it’s been one-sided,” he said. “It’s still too early to know how the case is going to turn out.”
After the hearing, McNamara told the media that new charges could be booked, as the case moves forward.
“We are looking at everybody that was involved in this incident and we will present all the information that we have to the grand jury, along with the charges that were originally filed and any other charges we feel are appropriate and that will include depraved indifference murder,” McNamara said. “There are numerous other charges, one of those charges will be gang assault. There are a lot of other charges that were not initially filed, but we can ask a grand jury to consider.”
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