Six church members arrested after teen dies from blunt force trauma

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Left to right: Bruce Leonard, Deborah Leonard, Joseph Irwin, David Morey, Linda Morey, Sarah Ferguson.

NEW HARTFORD, N.Y. — Six members of the Word of Life Christian Church have been arrested after the 19-year-old son of two of the suspects died from blunt force trauma injuries, police said.

Family members took the teen, Lucas Leonard, by car Monday afternoon to a hospital in nearby Utica. New Hartford police said Leonard was injured during an assault and was pronounced dead Monday at the hospital.

Investigators determined that Leonard was beaten at the church, New Hartford police said. Police were originally called to the hospital and told that Leonard had been shot, but authorities said later a gunshot wound had not been confirmed. A medical examiner is doing an autopsy.

Authorities found several children in the church and called in child protective services.

Brother in serious condition

A second assault victim — Leonard’s 17-year-old brother — also was found, police said. He is at a hospital in serious condition, they said.

The parents, Bruce T. Leonard, 65, and Deborah R. Leonard, 59, were each charged Tuesday with one count of first-degree manslaughter, a Class B felony. Four other church members were charged with second-degree assault, also a felony.

They were arraigned Tuesday afternoon in New Hartford Town Court.

The Leonards each were held with bail set at $100,000. Bail for the other four was set at $50,000 each.

The Utica Observer-Dispatch spoke to attorneys for the Leonards and reported the lawyers said their clients had no criminal history.

‘Quite a shock’

Bruce Leonard has been employed by the Utica School District as a teaching assistant since 2007, Proctor High School principal Steven Falchi told CNN. He has been employed at Proctor High School in Utica since 2010, Falchi said.

Leonard worked with a certified teacher and other teaching assistants in the special education department, Falchi said. He worked with “severely and profoundly disabled students,” Falchi added.

“We were very shocked to learn the news,” said Falchi, adding that he was not aware of previous complaints or disciplinary action against Leonard. “He was a hard worker and was exceptionally compassionate about his work with our students. It came as quite a shock.”

Lucas Leonard and his younger brother were home schooled, according to Ronald Wheelock, superintendent for Sauquoit Valley Central School District.

The school district’s involvement with teens was limited, with the parents sending the district curriculum proposals at the beginning of the year, Wheelock said.

Police have interviewed others who were at the church Monday before a SWAT team entered.

‘Not a mainline church’

The pastor of a nearby Catholic Church said little is known about his neighbors.

“I really don’t know much about the place. They keep to themselves,” the Rev. Abraham Esper of St. Patrick’s-St. Anthony’s Church said. “I don’t know of any regular services that they have. They are certainly not a mainline church.”

Esper said a locked gate obscures a parking lot behind the Word of Life church. He said he’s never seen people coming or going in the five years he’s been at St. Patrick’s-St. Anthony’s, which has one service on Saturdays and two on Sundays.

Authorities said they expect to make more arrests.

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