By CAROLYN THOMPSON, Associated Press
NEW HARTFORD, N.Y. (AP) — A woman charged with beating her teenage son to death inside a church felt helpless to stop an intervention that spiraled into violent punishment by others, her lawyer said Thursday.
As the encounter turned violent, Deborah Leonard didn’t have the emotional strength to oppose others in a church where she’d worshipped for 30 years, attorney Devin Garramone said.
“It looks like she went along with it, and it spun out of control,” he 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.'”
Leonard stands charged with manslaughter in the death of her 19-year-old son, Lucas, but Garramone said he believed other people caused the fatal injuries. Six people have been arrested in the beatings of Lucas and his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, who were pummeled with fists and kicked at the Word of Life church in New Hartford during what police describe as a spiritual counseling session to urge them to confess sins and seek forgiveness.
Garramone and police say they aren’t certain why the boys were being punished. But whatever the reason, the brothers are victims, Police Chief Michael Inserra stressed.
“We want to understand why this happened, how this session got so out of control that it cost the life of a young man,” he said in an interview Thursday. “I think once we do, it will put the community at ease.”
The small, insular church also served as home to some of its members. The parishioners so firmly kept to themselves that when a fire broke out a few years ago, they extinguished it themselves and didn’t want to let firefighters in, Inserra said.
And after Lucas Leonard was taken to a hospital Monday and police came to suspect his younger brother had also been hurt, their relatives wouldn’t tell officers where Christopher Leonard was, the chief said.
Only after searching for hours and contacting a former church member did police manage to locate him in a room on the second floor, Inserra said. The teen emerged after speaking to police by phone.
“The membership of this church, they’re devoted to the church” and to spiritual leader Traci Irwin and pastor Tiffanie Irwin, Inserra said. “And they, a lot of times, wait to be told what to do.”
The spiritual leader and pastor, who are mother and daughter, respectively, have not been charged.
The brothers suffered injuries to the abdomen, genitals, back and thighs during an hourslong attack, authorities said. Deborah Leonard “had no idea how far it would be taken,” her lawyer said.
She and her husband — the boys’ father, Bruce Leonard — have pleaded not guilty to manslaughter. Four other people, including the victims’ 33-year-old sister, Sarah Ferguson, have pleaded not guilty to assault. Lawyers for the father and the sister haven’t commented.
The congregation’s seclusion had long sparked suspicion in its rural area about 50 miles from Syracuse, and Inserra said church members occasionally complained to police about harassment by local youths. But overall, the church was a quiet presence, he said.
Housed in a former school building, the roughly 30-year-old church had perhaps 40 or more members at its peak but now counts closer to 20, Inserra said.
Tara Litz, who used to live nearby, remembers being puzzled by the members’ seeming secrecy and chanting in the night. But they would also offer her bread, cakes and invitations to join in church activities, she said.
“They were always very kind to me,” she said.
In nearby Clayville, a village of 350 people where the Leonards live, neighbors recalled a highly religious family that kept mostly to itself.
Associated Press writer John Kekis and video journalist Ted Shaffrey in New Hartford, and AP writer Jennifer Peltz in New York contributed to this report.
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