Near the start of a church counseling session that turned into a deadly beating, a father whipped his two teenage sons with what appeared to be a belt, a witness testified Friday as he offered a glimpse inside the highly regimented and insular congregation.
The witness, church deacon Daniel Irwin, said he occasionally looked in on the session that started Sunday night and continued for over 12 hours in the Word of Life Christian Church sanctuary, and he saw one of the teens, 19-year-old Lucas Leonard, bleeding and in distress.
"Lucas was rolling himself back and forth on the floor and making a sustained monotone moaning," recalled Irwin, who said he didn't stay for long.
Within hours, the teen would be dead.
Irwin's testimony came during a court hearing for the youth's parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard, who are charged with manslaughter. The hearing was held to determine whether there was sufficient evidence for the case to go forward.
Lucas Leonard and his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, were pounded with fists, whipped with cords and kicked during what began as spiritual counseling over his desire to leave the fold, police have said church members told them. A neighbor, James Constantine, also said Lucas had talked about moving on and had mentioned he might join the Army.
Christopher was hospitalized in serious condition.
Four other church members have been charged with assault in the case, including the victims' 33-year-old sister, Sarah Ferguson. Their hearings will be held later. All the defendants have pleaded not guilty.
Irwin testified that he got a text message after services ended around 8 p.m. Sunday saying the Leonard family would be part of a counseling session with the church's pastor, Tiffanie Irwin, the witness' sister. Irwin said he wasn't told what the session was about.
From the start, it was intense: Raised voices prompted Irwin to move five children who were in room near the sanctuary to another space farther away, so they wouldn't be scared.
Watching through a doorway window around 10 p.m., Irwin said, he saw Bruce Leonard hit Lucas up to six times and also hit Christopher. They winced, Irwin said, but Lucas didn't try to defend himself.
At various points, Bruce Leonard and Tiffanie Irwin asked Lucas questions — Irwin didn't say what they were — and the young man answered yes and no.
Around 10 a.m. Monday, panicked church members ran up to Irwin and said they thought Lucas was dead.
Irwin dashed into the sanctuary to find the teen lying motionless on the floor, with Bruce Leonard, Christopher Leonard and the witness' mother, church spiritual leader Traci Irwin, trying to resuscitate him.
After 10 minutes, Irwin helped load the injured teen into a van to be taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
An attorney for Deborah Leonard said earlier this week that the mother felt helpless to stop an "intervention" that she didn't expect to become so harsh. The father's attorney said the couple didn't intend such grave injuries.
Deborah Leonard, 59, gazed down, her long, graying hair hanging in front of her face, as the hearing began with a police officer testifying about photographs he took of Lucas' bruised body.
Bruce Leonard, 65, appeared to glance at the images as they were handed to defense lawyers; his wife didn't look up.
The roughly 30-year-old Word of Life church once had perhaps 40 or more members but now counts closer to 20, authorities said. Some live at the church, which occupies a former school in New Hartford, about 50 miles from Syracuse.
To some local residents, it was a strangely secretive church where people were rarely seen coming and going. Police Chief Michael Inserra said the congregants kept so much to themselves that they didn't want to let firefighters in after a blaze several years ago. The members extinguished it themselves.
Devoted to their spiritual leader and pastor, members often "wait to be told what to do," Inserra said.
Traci and Tiffanie Irwin haven't been charged and haven't commented.