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Courts & Trials

Matriarch of Alleged Killer Church Cult Sentenced in Teen’s Fatal Beating

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The matriarch of a small religious sect that former members insist is a cult will spend the next two years in jail for her role in the prolonged, deadly beatings of two teenage brothers who tried to leave the group, PEOPLE confirms.

Traci Irwin, 50, was sentenced on Monday after pleading guilty in Oneida County Court in New York to two counts of felony unlawful imprisonment.

Irwin was charged, along with eight other members of the Word of Life Church, with the fatal beating of Lucas Leonard. The 19-year-old was savagely whipped and battered intermittently over a 12-hour period inside the church, which is located in New Hartford, New York — a suburb of Utica.

Lucas’ brother, 17-year-old Christopher Leonard, was also attacked in the Oct. 11, 2015, incident, but survived with numerous injuries.

The church’s 29-year-old pastor, Traci’s daughter Tiffanie Irwin, also participated in the beatings, as did the boys’ parents, Deborah and Bruce Leonard, and the brothers’ half-sister, Sarah Ferguson.

Traci’s was the only outstanding case stemming from the 2015 beatings, which unfolded during an alleged “counseling session.” Church members told police these counseling sessions occurred in a “sanctuary room” and involved a pastor who met with congregants to assess their “spiritual state.”

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Prosecutors contended the beatings began soon after both brothers approached church leaders with their plans to leave the secretive congregation. But in the spring, Christopher, who sustained severe injuries during the beatings, testified that he and his brother had molested the children of several of the church’s members, including his half-sister’s infant child.

(Prosecutors had long claimed the allegations of abuse against the Leonard brothers were baseless, and that Irwin falsely accused the two teens of sexually abusing their younger siblings and cousins over the course of several years.)

Sarah Condon/Observer-Dispatch via AP

Court records show Bruce testified that Lucas fell down during the attacks and was ordered to stand back up. Lucas fell a second time, and he begged for the violence to cease.

The father told the court that the whippings finally stopped after Lucas sustained an injury to his genitals. According to court records, he bled out from a laceration there, causing his death.

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All told, nine people were indicted for their roles in the attack. Eight defendants accepted deals from the prosecution. Only Ferguson stood trial; she was convicted in July of manslaughter and assault and was sentenced to 25 years.

Joseph Irwin, Tiffanie’s 23-year-old brother, previously pleaded guilty to first-degree gang assault and second-degree assault and faces eight years in prison. David Morey, 27, and his mother, 55-year-old Linda Morey, have both pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree assault and will likely be sentenced to five years behind bars.

Earlier this year, the teens’ parents pleaded guilty to assault. Bruce Leonard faces 15 years while Deborah faces five. Tiffanie’s other brother, Daniel Irwin, pleaded guilty to unlawful imprisonment and will serve two years.