New York teen beaten to death by father with electrical cord during church counseling session

Bruce Leonard appearing at court in New Hartford, New York, on Oct 16, 2015.
Bruce Leonard appearing at court in New Hartford, New York, on Oct 16, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW HARTFORD, New York (Reuters) - A man who said he witnessed a teenager being beaten to death inside a church in upstate New York testified at hearing on Friday (Oct 16) that he saw the father of the victim hitting him with what he thought was a belt.

A New York State Police investigator later testified that it was an electrical extension cord that Bruce Leonard, 65, used to thrash his son Lucas Leonard, 19, who the authorities said died of his injuries.

The elder Leonard and his wife Deborah Leonard, 59, have been charged with first-degree manslaughter.

The attack took place during a counseling session that started late on Sunday inside the Word of Life Church in Chadwicks, New York, about 80km east of Syracuse, police said.

In addition, four of the couple's fellow parishioners were charged with assaulting the teenager's younger brother, Christopher Leonard, 17.

Daniel Irwin, deacon of the church, said during the hearing in New Hartford Town Court that he witnessed the counseling session and saw Bruce Leonard striking Lucas Leonard.

The group is accused of beating the brothers over the course of more than 10 hours after church services in an attempt to get the teenagers to confess to their sins and apologise.

Irwin said he also observed Bruce Leonard and Christopher Leonard giving Lucas Leonard mouth-to-mouth resuscitation at some point during the session.

Tiffany Irwin, pastor of the church and Irwin's sister, administered cardiopulmonary resuscitation to the teenager, he said. "Last time I saw him, he was lying on the floor making a sustained monotone moan," Mr Irwin told the court, referring to Lucas Leonard.

The state police investigator, Jason Nellis, testified that Deborah Leonard told him during initial interviews that Daniel Irwin had, in fact, struck her son during the counseling session.

Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara said Irwin is considered a cooperating witness and has not been charged or arrested. Mr McNamara said he planned to seek a grand jury indictment of the Leonards as soon as possible.

Mr McNamara declined to comment when asked about media reports that the teen was trying to leave the church group.

Deborah Leonard, who appeared in shackles and orange jumpsuits along with her husband, wept during Friday's testimony. Bruce Leonard appeared stoic and wrote on a notepad as witnesses spoke to the court.

Family members drove Lucas Leonard to nearby St. Luke's Hospital on Monday afternoon, after discovering that he was not breathing, the police said. Lucas Leonard, whose injuries were consistent with blunt force trauma to the torso and extremities, died shortly after arriving.

New Hartford police and the New York State Police launched a joint investigation after being notified about the suspicious death.

Police deployed tactical teams to the church, and discovered the younger brother, Christopher Leonard, on the second floor of the three-story red brick building, a former public schoolhouse.

Christopher Leonard is being treated at a local hospital for blunt force trauma to the body and extremities, police say.

Sarah Ferguson, 33, the victims' sister, and fellow church members Linda Morey, 54, David Morey, 26, and Joseph Irwin, 26, were arrested on charges of assault in the second degree.

All of the defendants appeared at Friday's hearing. Ferguson and Irwin are scheduled to appear in court again next Friday. They were unable to make US$50,000 (S$69,000) bail each and will remain in custody at the Oneida County Jail.

The Moreys were freed on US$50,000 bond each and were ordered to appear in court on Dec. 15.

The Leonards' next court appearance will depend on whether they are indicted by a grand jury.