Neighbors heard strange and frightening rumors about the Word of Life Christian Church, but it now appears they couldn’t imagine the horrifying crime that, prosecutors say, took place inside. Church members Bruce and Deborah Leonard brutally attacked their own two teenage sons, according to the charges against them, killing their 19-year-old son, Lucas Leonard, and severely injuring his 17-year-old brother, Christopher.
But why? And why did four other congregants at the “church” — which residents of the New Hartford, New York, neighborhood describe as a “cult thing” — allegedly help 65-year-old Bruce and 59-year-old Deborah carry out a sadistic and heartless assault on their own flesh and blood?
A report by Utica, New York, TV station WKTV raised the possibility that the two teen boys were involved in the abuse of children, but New Hartford Police Department Lieutenant Timothy O’Neill declined to comment on that speculation. Police did, however, say they believe they know the motive behind the assaults.
New Hartford Police Chief Michael Inserra did describe the events leading up to the violent assaults, saying that Bruce and Deborah Leonard on Sunday night sat their two sons down for a “counseling session” at which they were expected to “confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness.”
But as the “counseling” dragged on for hours, Bruce and Deborah Leonard began to use violence against the two boys, according to the allegations, viciously striking the two youths with their fists and using blunt weapons as well.
“We have some ideas as of what was used,” O’Neill said. “I don’t want to get into the specific weapons. But punching and kicking were also a part of the trauma that the these two young men were exposed to.”
Also arrested and charged in the assaults on the two teens were church members Joseph Irwin, 26; David Morey, 26; Linda Morey, 54; and Sarah Ferguson, 33.
The arrests were a major police operation, with SWAT team members surrounding the church and local residents told to evacuate their homes until the police action had concluded.
But those residents were not surprised by all the excitement surrounding the Word of Life Christian Church, which occupied a former school building and which the neighbors described as a mysterious and creepy “cult” whose members were rarely seen outside of the building in daylight hours, and could be heard chanting loudly enough to be audible on the street outside, according to a report on the Syracuse.com news site.
One neighbor told the site that when she first moved to the neighborhood a decade ago, church members were often seen shopping at local grocery stores and inviting local residents into the church. But the church members soon became increasingly withdrawn.
“They would always be trying to get us to join the church, but then we said no and then they completely stopped talking,” the neighborhood resident told the site.
“There’s always been weird things going on,” said another neighbor, Julie Howard, in the WKTV report. “You always hear dogs, they’re breeding dogs. The cops have been called there before, they’re not allowed in the building, they can’t get in the building.
“The cult thing over here has been going on for a while, I guess around 30 years. It’s their own religion everybody stays in their own religion. It’s like one big happy family of about 30 of them,” Howard said.
Bruce Leonard has a lawyer, Don Gerace, who told the Washington Post that Leonard is a farmer from upstate New York who has also worked as a high school teaching assistant. He has no criminal record, according to Gerace.
Bruce and Deborah Leonard have been married for 20 years and have been members of the Word of Life Christian Church for eight years, the lawyer said.
[Featured Image: Oneida County Sheriff’s Office]