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Word of Life

Pastor pleads guilty to manslaughter, assault after ‘counseling session’ turned fatal

“19-year-old Lucas Leonard and his 17-year-old brother Christopher had sinned. One of Lucas’s sins was his desire to leave the church [Word of Life] entirely, to seek a new path. Tiffanie Irwin, the church’s pastor, along with other worshipers there, wouldn’t accept any sort of new path and decided the teens needed to repent. So, on Oct. 11, 2015, the pastor gathered with her brother Joseph Irwin, mother-son pair Linda and David Morey and several other believers at their church in New Hartford, N.Y., and decided to hold a ‘counseling session.’ Among them were the teens’ parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard. ... During that time, the Associated Press reported, the congregation told the brothers they had to repent for sins of all stripes—such as using a voodoo doll or allegedly molesting their half-sister’s children, a claim police say is unsubstantiated and unsupported by any evidence—according to Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara. To force this repentance, the worshipers beat the teens for most of the 14 hours, taking a folded four-foot electrical cord to their torsos and genitals while telling them to ‘confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness.’ ... Sarah Ferguson, the teens’ half-sister, was the only one of the nine involved to decline a plea deal. She was found guilty after a non-jury trial in July, and she was sentenced to 25 years in prison. ... ‘There’s always been weird things going on,’ Howard told WKTV. ‘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.’ A reporter from the Syracuse Post-Standard entered the church days after Lucas died. There, he found the place in a state of disarray. One room contained Styrofoam cups of cold coffee and a half-eaten pork sandwich. In another room was a framed, stitched textile that read, in part, ‘We have been commissioned through the written word of God to reach out to those who have not experienced the love of Jesus Christ in their lives. … Through the systematic training up of saints, our goal is for them to reach out confidently, sharing the love and compassion of Jesus Christ.’ A sign still hung on the front door, reading ‘Welcome to Word of Life.’ It is unclear whether the house of worship is still operating, although after the arrests, police told the Post-Standard that several children from the church had been placed in protective custody. Sentencing hearings for the eight people who have pleaded guilty are scheduled for December and January.” (Washington Post, 10/24/16) [IT 8.1]

Sarah Ferguson, first Word of Life defendant, sentenced for manslaughter

“The first Word of Life defendant to be sentenced proclaimed her love, through tears, for the brother she whipped to death and the other, whom she assaulted. ‘I do truly love my brothers. I did not intent [sic] or purposefully inflict, knowingly, serious physical damage. I was not aware. I just, I snapped. My brain just could not...’ sobbed Sarah Ferguson Thursday morning in Oneida County Court… Dwyer, the same judge who found Ferguson guilty of manslaughter, gang assault and assault with respect to Lucas and Christopher Leonard, sentenced their half-sister to a total of 25 years in prison. Dwyer had acquitted Ferguson on a murder trial she had faced. Victims Lucas and Christopher Leonard’s parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard, who are co-defendants in this case, have pleaded guilty. They await sentencing, contingent upon their agreement to testify against the others. Church Pastor Tiffanie Irwin, her mother, Traci Irwin, brothers Daniel and Joseph Irwin, along with David and Linda Morey—all church members—still await trial. The tentative trial date for the remaining defendants is October 12.” (WKTV, 09/01/16) [IT 8.1]

Two More Word of Life defendants plead guilty, face 2 Years in jail

“Mother and son defendants in the Word of Life fatal beating case entered guilty pleas on Friday to reduced charges. Traci and Daniel Irwin, originally charged with murder and manslaughter, respectively, each pleaded guilty to two counts of unlawful imprisonment; one for 19-year-old Lucas Leonard, who died in the beating inside Word of Life Church in Chadwicks last fall, and one for his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, who survived the assault. The agreed-upon sentence: a total of two years in the Oneida County Jail for each victim, with credit for time served. … Traci Irwin will be sentenced December 5; her son, Daniel Irwin, December 9. Still pending are the cases against church members Linda Morey and her son, David Morey, Pastor Tiffanie Irwin and her brother, Joseph Irwin. The judge said that if any more cases are going to be resolved through pleas, it should happen in the next two weeks.” (WKTV, 10/07/16) [IT 8.1]