Father of Boys Beaten at Alleged 'Killer Cult' Church Pleads Guilty to Assault Charges
As part of his plea deal, Bruce Leonard has agreed to testify against the seven other defendants
Bruce Leonard, the father of two upstate New York teenagers who were beaten to death eight months ago inside a church they were trying to leave, pleaded guilty on Wednesday to two counts of assault, PEOPLE confirms.
In Oneida County Court, Leonard, 66, admitted to whipping his two sons with an electrical cord during an elongated gang assault that unfolded inside the Word of Life Christian Church in Chadwicks, New York, the night of Oct. 11, 2015.
The beatings – which authorities allege involved several other members of the church, including the boys’ mother and half-sister – claimed the life of 19-year-old Lucas Leonard and severely injured his 17-year-old brother, Christopher.
Lucas and Christopher were allegedly attacked after telling church leaders they wanted to leave the church. In response, the church’s 30-year-old pastor, Tiffanie Irwin, allegedly falsely accused the two teens of sexually abusing their younger siblings and cousins over the course of several years, investigators say.
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Had Bruce Leonard not pleaded guilty, he would have gone on trial Thursday, officials tell PEOPLE. Leonard, who had initially been charged with murder, has agreed to testify against the seven other defendants facing charges for their roles in last fall’s violence.
He faces up to 15 years in prison when he’s sentenced later this summer.
His wife, Deborah Leonard, pleaded guilty to assault last December.
The beatings inside the Word of Life Christian Church have provoked suspicion that the religious sect is actually a destructive cult. Rick Ross, who has been cited internationally as a cult expert, says there is no question the church fits the cult criteria.
“From what I can tell, church leaders broke people down through coercion, persuasion, isolation, and the control of information,” says Ross. “The members of this group were under the undo influence of the church’s leader, and they were not allowed to talk to people that left the church or people who were outside of the group. They were an enigma and they were not part of the community. Instead, they had disconnected from it.”
Court sources tell PEOPLE Leonard claimed during his court appearance Wednesday that a church member had accused Lucas of molesting children, which prosecutors say was a baseless allegation.
Murder Trial for Half-Sister of Victims Began Thursday
The trial for the Leonard brothers’s half-sister, Sarah Ferguson, began on Thursday, according to court officials. Opening arguments were provided by both the prosecution and the defense with witnesses scheduled to be called when the trail resumes on Friday.
Ferguson faces murder and other charges. The other defendants in the case are expected to be tried in September.
Those with outstanding criminal charges stemming from the beatings include pastor Tiffanie Irwin, Irwin’s mother, Traci Irwin, and Tiffanie’s brothers Joseph and Daniel Irwin. Mother and son Word of Life members Linda and David Morey are also facing charges. All have pleaded not guilty.
During his opening statements Thursday, Scott McNamara, Oneida County’s District Attorney, said the brothers were pummeled “as a form of torture to get them to confess their sins.”
Lucas, McNamara claims, experienced a 25 percent blood loss as a result of the beatings, which began when the brothers refused to admit they had molested the children of other church members. As the beatings intensified, the Leonard boys began to confess, the prosecutor explained.
McNamara said Thursday that the Word of Life Christian Church’s congregants believe Tiffanie Irwin communicates directly with God.