4 More Members of Alleged Church Cult Plead Guilty in Teen's Fatal Beating
The 30-year-old pastor of a small religious group that former members insist is a cult has pleaded guilty to manslaughter and assault, thus avoiding murder charges in a 2015 attack on two of her church members, PEOPLE confirms.
Her plea — along with the pleas of three other church members on Friday — comes little more than a year after two teenage brothers were savagely beaten over a dozen hours for what prosecutors said was their plan to defect from the upstate New York congregation.
Under the terms of a deal brokered by prosecutors, Tiffanie Irwin, the leader of the Word of Life Christian Church in Chadwicks, New York, pleaded guilty on Friday to two felonies: third-degree manslaughter and second-degree assault.
Irwin will avoid a murder prosecution for 19-year-old Lucas Leonard’s killing, thanks to the plea agreement, which recommends a 12-year prison sentence.
Last fall, Leonard and his then-17-year-old brother, Christopher Leonard, were pummeled by several church members, including their own parents. Lucas eventually died from injuries he sustained in the attack.
Prosecutors contend 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, that Irwin falsely accused the two teens of sexually abusing their younger siblings and cousins over the course of several years.)
All told, nine people were indicted for their roles in the Oct. 11, 2015, attack. Irwin was one of the four remaining defendants facing murder charges.
The other three also accepted plea deals on Friday, a court official confirms:
Joseph Irwin, Tiffanie’s 23-year-old brother, pleaded guilty to first-degree gang assault and second-degree assault; he faces eight years in prison when he’s sentenced in December. David Morey, 27, and his mother, 55-year-old Linda Morey, both pleaded guilty to two counts of second-degree assault and will likely be sentenced to five years behind bars.
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The teens’ parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard, were also church members and previously pleaded guilty to assault. Bruce faces 15 years while Deborah is looking at five. Tiffanie’s mother, Traci Irwin, and her son, Daniel Irwin, pleaded guilty to unlawful imprisonment. They’re each facing two-year prison sentences.
Sarah Ferguson, the teens’ half-sister, was the only defendant involved in last fall’s violence to decline a plea deal. In July, she was convicted of manslaughter and assault but was cleared of murder. She has since been sentenced to 25 years in prison.
At Ferguson’s trial, Bruce Leonard testified that Tiffanie called his family together, following a Sunday service, before confronting the brothers with allegations of child abuse and witchcraft. He told a judge the beatings began with a punch and a slap and quickly progressed to electrical cord whippings.
Bruce testified that the beatings were carried out so that his sons “would understand the hurt that they caused” and to discipline and punish them.
Bruce said he handed a power cord to Ferguson, who Leonard claims asked the teens, “How could you?” as she started whipping them.
He further testified that Lucas admitted having a voodoo doll of Tiffanie and said he’d regularly stick pins in it to hurt the pastor.
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.