My Visit with Bruce Leonard

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*SPOILERS*

This could be a three-word blog: I like Bruce.

I visited Bruce Leonard at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora in June of 2019. He seemed no different than any other person you’d meet (except that his broken eyeglasses were cobbled together with a twisted bread tie). He laughed. He cried. I’m not being cliché. He was funny, serious, smart, and engaging. And why would Bruce’s normalcy be notable? Because if you read my book, Without a Prayer, he clearly hadn’t been. He’d been under the control of Irwin family members, heads of the Word of Life Christian Church (WLCC).

By the time I’d received my first letter from Bruce (parts are included in the book), it was clear WLCC had lost most of its grip. Bruce had written me in coherent, complete sentences, as opposed to the curbed communication I’d witnessed (through texts, audio, and emails contained in the police files) while he’d been under the spell of the Word of Life cult.

When Bruce had first landed in jail, charged with murdering his teenage son Lucas Leonard, an Anglican priest had begun visiting him and offering emotional support. Slowly, and cautiously, Rich Dibble was able to deprogram Bruce, and bring him to see that he’d been a victim to a degree. I say “to a degree” because Bruce will tell you, without qualifiers, that he is responsible for his own actions. And that’s more than any of the other eight defendants in this case. Bruce is the only one who owned up to his role, and expressed deep sorrow and regret. When he’d first written me, he would not use the “c” word: cult. He would only go so far as to say he’d come to believe the Irwins exerted “undue influence” over the group.

Author Susan Ashline outside of Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. June 2019.

Bruce’s daughter Kristel decided to go with me to the prison, as did Rich Dibble. Visits last six hours, but the lazy guards made us wait so long to be processed (and then tried to bar me because of my shoes, until I told them to point out in the handbook a policy that didn’t exist), that by the time we got to see Bruce, we had only two hours with him.

After that unnecessary wait, I was starving and went to get some crappy food out of the prison vending machine. When I returned to our table, Bruce was seated and looking serious with arms on the table, clasped hands, and his broken, bread-tie glasses. “I’ve got questions.” He narrowed his eyes at me.

I had this stupid grin that I sometimes wear at inappropriate times, and it was on my face as I sat opposite him. “Bruce,” I said, still dumb-grinning. “You’re so  . . . business-like. So serious.”

“Well,” he said, a little looser, but readjusted his interlocking fingers, “it is business. I see it more as a summit. That’s what this is.”

From that, as I unwrapped my steaming microwaved sandwich designed to not get stale for 16 years, I asked “How was your day, Bruce?”

It was awful, he said. He hadn’t slept the night before, because he was nervous about our . . . summit. And then he broke into casual talk and never pulled from the list of questions he’d spent all night ruminating over. But he did inform me that he would be making a decision as to whether I was friend or foe.

I wanted to make sure his questions got answered. In one of his letters to me, it was clear he needed another side presented to him. The book had not yet been released, so he hadn’t read it. But Kristel had read the advanced copy. She’d also seen evidence from the investigation files. I was glad she and Rich accompanied me, because it helped Bruce accept the things I told him. [Bruce gave me permission to share our conversation.]

I revealed information about the Irwins and WLCC; for example, that the Irwin boys had an arsenal and had built an underground firing range. Bruce listened intently. He did not get defensive. He accepted it as true, but couldn’t understand how he missed a shooting range under the building. Kristel explained to him the exact location.

I hesitatingly told him that while he believed the Irwins loved his family, by their actions, the Irwins hated the Leonards. I told him what the Irwins had been saying about the Leonards behind their backs. I revealed other key points in the book, and he was surprised, to say the least.

Bruce had written me complaining about the investigation. For instance, he said much was made of the bullet casing that police pulled from his pocket. Bruce told me he’d found it, thought it was cool, and put it in his pocket. He was known for the interesting finds he kept in his pockets. But I told him police thought his son may’ve been shot, and because Bruce was uncooperative, it raised their suspicions. I told him police had no idea what had occurred and were doing their jobs trying to find a boy’s killer. Of course he would be a suspect. The bullet could be evidence. He understood.

During our visit, there were several minutes absent talking, just crying. Bruce broke down at the first mention of Luke’s name.

He talked about his wife and his wishes for her to remain in his life and marriage. He also hopes she’s reached an understanding of the control WLCC had over their lives. He said he was going to write her, and try to open the door to communication about that, and see how far she’s come.

Sadly, Rich, Kristel and I knew that Debi Leonard had not evolved away from the cult at all. But none of us told Bruce. I hoped his communication with her would open her eyes to what had been going on in that hellish place. But the odds are against it, because Debi is doing time in the same prison as her daughter Sarah Ferguson and Pastor Tiffanie Irwin.

When the visit was over, and we all stood to say good-bye, Bruce smiled and said to me, “I’m going to say . . . friend.”

UPDATE:

Right after the visit, after he’d had a chance to process the wealth of shocking information dumped on him, Bruce expressed anger that he’d been deceived all these years. He felt that made Luke’s death all the more egregious. In the summer of 2019, Bruce read Without a Prayer.  Rich had mailed it to him. It took Bruce many months to send me his thoughts in writing. He said he felt the book was mostly accurate as far as the details that involved him. But as far as the beating scene—the one scene that needed to be pieced together based on numerous accounts—he felt I attributed to him a more violent role than what reflected his actual participation. That really bothered him. He said he felt I did a good job with the book overall, and wished me success. He thanked me for the kind words about his children.

And he said the “c” word fit.

 

[NOTE: Each of the nine defendants were given the opportunity to contribute their thoughts to the book. All but Bruce declined to respond.]

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