Cult Mom Gets Out of Prison

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[*Please do not post threats against Deborah Leonard. I’ve seen scary stuff posted online in regard to her release. I understand expressing anger, but threats to her safety are not only disturbing and wrong, they’re illegal.]

Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult

[UPDATE: Thursday, January 16, 2020, Deborah Leonard is officially released]

Deborah Leonard has been in la-la land, likening prison to living in a college dorm, according to credible sources. Debi reportedly spent her time at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility on the prison dance team, exercising, and working in the graphics shop and law library. Last I knew, she was in denial of the facts surrounding the death of her son Lucas Leonard, a death in which she participated. I’ve been told she believes the reason Luke died from the beating while Christopher survived, is because of a misguided notion that Luke was a drug addict. Luke had been on pain medication for knee surgery. There is no evidence—or even reasonable speculation—he was a drug addict. But it is proven that Luke died from a prolonged, severe beating, coupled with the fact that no one provided him even basic medical care.

Debi was sentenced to five years in prison for her role in the death of Luke, 19, inside the Word of Life Christian Church (WLCC), a cult outside of Utica. In 2015, a gang of angry worshippers had brutally beaten Luke and his brother Chris, then 17, after hearing allegations they’d been molesting children. Nine members of the cult were convicted, including Luke’s mother, father, and sister Sarah Ferguson (who received 25 years for a manslaughter conviction after trial). Deborah is expected to be released from prison on January 16, 2020.

FAQ


What are my thoughts on Debi?

In the end, Debi could not shake the cult mentality. That might have to do with the unfortunate circumstance of her being imprisoned with her daughter Sarah, and with Tiffanie Irwin, leader of the cult. All three of them got to sit around reaffirming each other’s claims they did nothing wrong. Debi has refused to acknowledge her role, accepts no responsibility, and has gone so far as to blame Luke for his own death. She had told investigators she believed Luke provoked the beating because he wanted them to kill him, likening it to “suicide by cop.”

While in county jail, Debi made statements to visitors that it was good Luke died when he did, because it gave him the chance to repent after being on a path to hell. Otherwise, she was cheerful, never mentioning Luke on the phone (for at least as long as the prosecution team monitored her calls). At sentencing, Debi apologized to her “church family”—the Irwins—for dragging them through the courts, and asked their forgiveness. But, in fact, the district attorney went forward with prosecuting the Irwins based on the presumption the Leonards would not have killed their son if the Irwins hadn’t abused, manipulated and controlled them for decades.

Debi also made this bizarre statement at her sentencing: “And to Chris and Luke, I have not hurt you physically, but I said some pretty horrible things to you both that I know hurt your hearts.” She conveniently ignored the part about how she participated in hitting and whipping her boys, and fell asleep to the sound of Luke crying as he lay dying.

While in prison, Debi concocted a story to a visitor that New York state officials forced a cremation of Luke’s body in order to destroy evidence of his supposed drug addiction. The truth is that Kristel Leonard, who is Debi’s step-daughter, led a meeting involving both sides of the family—several witnesses present—in which cremation was discussed and agreed upon. One of Debi’s blood relatives was assigned to be the liaison to Debi to share what they’d discussed. That person reported back that Debi was on board with cremation.

I respect—and forgive—people who admit to wrongdoing. I will cheer for their reformation. However, I’m not convinced Debi has had a moment where she has asked Luke to forgive her. I don’t think she’s grieved his death. Because last I knew, she had deceived herself into believing they all did the right thing that night, and that Luke got what he deserved.

Why did Debi get five years?

This wasn’t a cut and dried murder case. Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara would have to convince a grand jury that WLCC was a cult, in order to secure murder indictments against members of the Irwin family who ran it, despite that some of them never laid a hand on Luke that fateful night. This was no easy task. Early on, McNamara identified that Debi had been especially targeted by the Irwins for abuse. He also believed her to be one of the least culpable in Luke’s death, because Chris had told authorities her blows did not hurt. She’d been weakened by a series of heart attacks.

Debi’s cooperation with the prosecution was critical. McNamara made her an offer: plead guilty to assault charges (reduced from manslaughter) and be sentenced to five years in prison, plus five years parole, in exchange for testifying against her co-defendants. Though Debi did testify at grand jury, she refused to hold up her part of the bargain during Sarah’s trial.

In total, Debi served four years, three months behind bars (less than three years of it was in prison). She received credit for the time she was jailed while awaiting disposition of her case. Additionally, inmates given a sentence with a hard end date (in this case, five years) go into prison with “good time.” That means they automatically get a pre-determined amount of time shaved off each year of their sentence. It is very difficult to lose good time.

Where will Debi live upon release?

Debi and her husband Bruce still own the house in Clayville. Debi’s oldest son Jayden* has power of attorney over Debi and Bruce. Jayden has not had the house cleaned. It remains in the same squalid condition as when the Leonards were arrested a little more than four years ago. I would think it uninhabitable. New parolees are usually required to move in with someone, in a living situation approved by the parole officer. Additionally, the officer may bar Debi from driving. Unless she is excused from working because of poor health, the officer will require her to find employment. Debi would need to find a job within walking distance, or rely on someone to drive her. Because of that, she may end up living with Jayden. But Jayden was given custody of Debi’s two children, Grace and Ezekiel*, and one of Sarah’s children. I don’t know if there are protective orders that bar Debi from contact with her surviving children. Another possibility is that a sibling of Debi’s could take her in.

What will Debi’s life be like upon release?

Debi’s parole officer will not allow her to socialize with anyone with a criminal history. That means she will not be able to reconnect with Traci or Daniel Irwin, two of her co-defendants (they each served one year, five months in jail after pleading guilty to two counts of first degree unlawful imprisonment). The parole department will impose standard release conditions upon Debi, and her field officer can impose special conditions. She will probably be required to find employment. She will likely have a curfew, requiring her to remain in her approved residence during specific hours, subject to random checks by her parole officer. She likely won’t be allowed to drink, or allowed in establishments that serve alcohol (unless approved by her parole officer for situations such as work). She will not be able to leave her county of residence, without written permission of her parole officer.

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Was there a Peephole?

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[CLICK HERE to buy Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult]

Was there a “peephole” in the Leonard bathroom? And did brothers Lucas, 19, and Christopher, 17, use it to watch family members take showers?

As the boys were being beaten by a gang of angry Word of Life Christian Church members on October 11 and 12, 2015, their sister Sarah Ferguson raised the question: “Do you know anything about a peephole in the bathroom?”

Chris said he did.

Sarah grilled him as to whether he’d used it to watch her children take baths. And that’s when the beating turned into an epic flogging, resulting in Luke’s death, and life-threatening injuries for Chris.

First off, there is no direct evidence that victim Luke Leonard ever peeked through a hole into his family bathroom. Information supports that on the night of the fatal beating, Luke did not make any statements regarding a peephole. During Sarah Ferguson’s trial for Luke’s murder, her youngest sister Grace testified that Luke had told her he’d watched Grace take a shower, but that she’d never caught him doing it. Unfortunately, Luke doesn’t get a voice.

Chris, who testified that he and Luke were “best friends,” also testified that he didn’t know whether Luke had ever looked through a bathroom peephole.

Additionally, though news reports state Chris admitted to using the peephole, he was never actually asked the question. This is the question that Sarah’s defense attorney, Rebecca Wittman, asked relative to the peephole: “Do you know whether you had used that?” Why is the phrasing of the question important? Because the Leonards are direct communicators. Certainly, Chris would know whether he’d used a peephole, and he answered affirmatively.

When asked who “made” the peephole, Chris said he didn’t know.

The word “peephole” implies a hole created for the purpose of peeking at something on the other side. There may have been a hole, but was it intentionally made?

The Leonard home was built in the early 1900s and had a lot of holes. As of today, there are no visible holes in the bathroom wall. However, on the wall between the bathroom and adjoining bedroom, there are two areas that have been patched.

Below is a picture of a hallway in the Leonard home. At the end (center, right), you’ll see two specks of light – circles. Peepholes? Nah. They’re holes in the wall that formed naturally. And they look directly into the walk-in closet that Luke claimed as his room. Did someone create the holes to watch Luke change his clothes? Doubtful. Could the bathroom wall have similarly eroded over time, causing holes? Likely.

And what does “using” a peephole mean to Chris? Read the book and you’ll learn how the Irwins massaged their followers’ minds into believing it was sin to accidentally catch a glimpse of an undressed individual. Having a dream that involved sexual contact meant being guilty of it. Allowing a child to sit on one’s lap made one a perpetrator of molestation. Little children were not allowed to so much as hold hands with their brother or sister.

So was there a natural defect in the old Leonard home that appeared as a circle, and Chris and Luke caught glimpses of someone on the other side, which was inevitable? Or, did Chris and Luke drill a hole in the wall so they could gawk at their parents and siblings in the shower?

I omitted from the book that Traci Irwin–who regularly accused men of lusting after her–had complained to someone that an adult male church member had created a peephole to peer at her while she took showers. (Sound familiar?) She’d stayed at that family’s home briefly. It was not the Leonard home. Traci was said to have confronted the woman of the house with the allegations against her husband, causing a big rift in their marital relationship.

There were just a handful of families in the church at this time. Within this very small congregation, there is an epidemic of people drilling peepholes into their bathrooms in order to watch family members take showers? I’m willing to hear arguments, but you’d have a lot of convincing to do.

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