Teens tried to leave upstate church before fatal beating

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Beating Victim Had Wanted to Leave the Church, Members Say

The two teens who were viciously beaten by their parents and fellow members of the upstate Word of Life Church were being punished for trying to defect, Oneida County prosecutors allege. What started as a "counseling session" to address the boys' pending defection stretched into a ten-hour beating that ended early Monday morning with the death of Lucas Leonard, 19. His younger brother Christopher, 17, remains in critical condition.

The attorney for Deborah Leonard claimed that the boys were being punished for sexually molesting younger church members. That allegation was quickly dismissed by a New Hartford Police spokesperson as"completely unfounded."

At the Oneida County courthouse on Friday, prosecutors presented testimony from the initial questioning, in which Leonard admitted to whipping her sons with a "cord" during the "counseling session." Her husband, Bruce Leonard, is said to have initiated the violence, and their older half-sister joined in.

Following Sunday's service, he allegedly struck Lucas repeatedly with a belt. Daniel Irwin, 24, son of Word of Life's late founder, Jerry Irwin, testified that Lucas was clearly dead after the nightlong beating. Irwin claims he carried the teen's lifeless body outside, as panic set in.

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Upstate New York church killing, Lucas Leonard - crime scene photos
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Teens tried to leave upstate church before fatal beating
The Word of Life church is seen on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in New Hartford, N.Y. Two teenage brothers were brutally beaten in the church on Sunday, one fatally, in an effort by their parents, sister and other members to get them to confess their sins, police said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Police walk outside the Word of Life church on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in New Hartford, N.Y. Bruce and Deborah Leonard have been charged in the beating death of their son, Lucas, and the severe beating of his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, inside the church on Sunday. Four other adults were charged with assault in the younger brother's beating, including Sarah Ferguson, 33, the victims' sister. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
The Leonard family residence is seen on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in Clayville, N.Y. Bruce and Deborah Leonard have been charged in the beating death of their 19-year-old son, Lucas, and the severe beating of his 17-year-old brother, at the nearby Word of Life church on Sunday. Four other adults were charged with assault in the younger brother's beating, including Sarah Ferguson, 33, the victims' sister. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Map locates New Hartford, N.Y.; 1c x 3 inches; 46.5 mm x 76 mm;
The Leonard family residence is seen on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in Clayville, N.Y. Bruce and Deborah Leonard have been charged in the beating death of their 19-year-old son, Lucas, and the severe beating of his 17-year-old brother, at the nearby Word of Life church on Monday. Four other adults were charged with assault in the younger brother's beating, including Sarah Ferguson, 33, the victims' sister. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
A school bus passes the Word of Life church on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in New Hartford, N.Y. Two teenage brothers were brutally beaten in the church on Sunday, one fatally, in an effort by their parents, sister and other members to get them to confess their sins, police said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Valerie Giannatelli walks past the Word of Life church with children from her daycare center on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in New Hartford, N.Y. Bruce and Deborah Leonard have been charged in the beating death of their son, Lucas, and the severe beating of his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, inside the church on Sunday. Four other adults were charged with assault in the younger brother's beating, including Sarah Ferguson, 33, the victims' sister. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Police talk to a man through a fence while serving paperwork at the Word of Life church on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in New Hartford, N.Y. Bruce and Deborah Leonard have been charged in the beating death of their son, Lucas, and the severe beating of his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, inside the church on Sunday. Four other adults were charged with assault in the younger brother's beating, including Sarah Ferguson, 33, the victims' sister. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
The Word of Life church is seen on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in New Hartford, N.Y. Two teenage brothers were brutally beaten in the church on Sunday, one fatally, in an effort by their parents, sister and other members to get them to confess their sins, police said Wednesday. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Police knock on the door of the Word of Life church while serving paperwork on a church member, Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in New Hartford, N.Y. Bruce and Deborah Leonard have been charged in the beating death of their son, Lucas, and the severe beating of his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, inside the church on Sunday. Four other adults were charged with assault in the younger brother's beating, including Sarah Ferguson, 33, the victims' sister. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
New Hartford Police Chief Michael Inserra speaks about a fatal beating of a 19-year-old inside the Word of Life church during an interview with the Associated Press on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in New Hartford, N.Y. Bruce and Deborah Leonard have been charged in the beating death of their son, Lucas, and the severe beating of his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, inside the church on Sunday. Four other adults were charged with assault in the younger brother's beating, including Sarah Ferguson, 33, the victims' sister. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
Police walk outside the Word of Life church on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015, in New Hartford, N.Y. Bruce and Deborah Leonard have been charged in the beating death of their son, Lucas, and the severe beating of his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, inside the church on Sunday. Four other adults were charged with assault in the younger brother's beating, including Sarah Ferguson, 33, the victims' sister. (AP Photo/Mike Groll)
People attend a candlelight vigil in honor Lucas Leonard and Christopher Leonard, two teenagers brothers who were beaten during a church counseling session, at St. Patrick St. Anthony Church in Chadwicks, N.Y., Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. Lucas Leonard died in the attack at the Word of Life Christian Church in the central New York town of New Hartford. (Tina Russel/Observer-Dispatch via AP, Pool)
The crowd chants songs during a candlelight vigil in honor of Lucas Leonard and Christopher Leonard, two teenagers brothers who were beaten during a church counseling session, at St. Patrick St. Anthony Church in Chadwicks, N.Y., Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. Lucas Leonard died in the attack at the Word of Life Christian Church in the central New York town of New Hartford. (Tina Russel/Observer-Dispatch via AP, Pool)
Lauryn Johns signs a banner during a candlelight vigil in honor of Lucas Leonard and Christopher Leonard, two teenagers brothers who were beaten during a church counseling session, at St. Patrick St. Anthony Church in Chadwicks, N.Y., Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. Lucas Leonard died in the attack at the Word of Life Christian Church in the central New York town of New Hartford. (Tina Russel/Observer-Dispatch via AP, Pool)
Laura Petrilli, left, and Bianca Petrilli attend a candlelight vigil in honor of Lucas Leonard and Christopher Leonard, two teenagers brothers who were beaten during a church counseling session, at St. Patrick St. Anthony Church in Chadwicks, N.Y., Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. Lucas Leonard died in the attack at the Word of Life Christian Church in the central New York town of New Hartford. (Tina Russel/Observer-Dispatch via AP, Pool)
Charlie Sherman plays a guitar and sings during a candlelight vigil in honor of Lucas Leonard and Christopher Leonard, two teenagers brothers who were beaten during a church counseling session, at St. Patrick St. Anthony Church in Chadwicks, N.Y., Tuesday, Oct. 20, 2015. Lucas Leonard died in the attack at the Word of Life Christian Church in the central New York town of New Hartford. (Tina Russel/Observer-Dispatch via AP, Pool)
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Lucas's death was first reported after his parents took him to a local hospital on Monday afternoon. A police raid following the hospital visit -- complete with snipers and a police tactical team -- led to the discovery of the other Leonard boy, hiding on the second floor of the church. The Oneida County district attorney hasn't confirmed if he'll be cooperating with the investigation. Both teens suffered injuries to their abdomens, genitals, backs, and thighs.

At a preliminary hearing on Thursday, Bruce Leonard's attorney dismissed the prosecution's escape theory, instead citing similar allegations about the boys' "misbehavior" as the real reason for what he preferred to call the "family event." Lucas's accidental death was "not what was intended by my client or, I believe, by the mother of Lucas," he offered.

Former member Chadwick Handville told the New York Times:"Everybody who's gone there is a victim of abuse. This was a cult. This was not a church; I don't care what words they use on the building. The spirit of that place was not freedom."

Handville's remarks echo other claims about how the church was viewed in the community. "There was just a really weird vibe about the place," Adriane Hectus told the Utica Observer-Dispatch. Residents had claimed up to 30 members lived at the compound. The police had been called to it repeatedly.

The elder Leonards were also reportedly subjected to demeaning church practices. Word of Life founder Jerry Irwin, who reportedly liked to use racial slurs in his preaching, was hard on the couple. "They were always on church discipline," Handville said of the Leonards. "They were always bullied spiritually." He compared the place to Jonestown.

After Irwin's death several years back, his wife, Traci Irwin, who went by "Mother," took leadership of the congregation. The daughter, Tiffanie Irwin, 29, is currently pastor. Authorities claim she called for the counseling session that would result in Lucas Leonard's death. Tiffanie's brother Joseph, 26, was among the group charged with second-degree assault.

WATCH: Witnesses say teens' beating by parents, parishioners, lasted 14 hours:

Witnesses Say Teens' Beating By Parents, Parishioners, Lasted 14 Hours

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