Mother and Son Cult Members Exit Prison

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Linda Morey and her son, David, will be freed from prison on Thursday, February 27. They are among nine members of the Word of Life Christian Church (WLCC) convicted in the 2015 beating death of one of its members, 19-year-old Lucas Leonard, the subject of my book, Without a Prayer.

Facing murder charges, the mother and son agreed to plead guilty to second degree assault against Luke and his brother Christopher, who survived the gang attack, in exchange for a sentence of five years in prison and three years on parole. This is ironic, since Linda will presumably move back in with her husband (David’s father), a former parole officer. At the time of the crime, Steven* [pseudonym] was a senior officer for the New York State Department of Corrections, earning a salary of $90,020 a year. Soon after Lucas was killed and his wife and son arrested, he retired. Steven was a member of the central New York cult early on, but dropped out after a couple of years. His daughter Kathleen*, who is three years older than David, remained a loyal Irwin follower until the very end, and was present the night Luke was killed. Kathleen was babysitting children in a nearby room, as Luke was being beaten. She was never charged in connection with the crime. David will most likely not be allowed to move in with his father, because paroled felons are not allowed to live in the same residence.

Linda Morey believed in physical correction and was known to be abusive. In this audio clip, Linda is heard participating in a “counseling session” of a cult member (there are two soundbites from the same counseling session, edited back-to-back).

Linda worked hard to gain the favor of Tiffanie Irwin, the young preacher who led WLCC, and other members of the Irwin family. She would spend up to eight hours a day on her hands and knees cleaning dog excrement in the cult, which ran a dog-breeding business. David Morey was a virtually silent young man, a follower, who became part of the Irwin clan’s inner circle because he palled around with the Irwin boys who were close to his age.

Luke’s beating by the gang of angry WLCC members turned deadly after Linda handed Luke’s parents a computer cord, encouraging them to whip Luke and Chris. And when Luke’s sister Sarah slashed a hole in his penis, causing blood to pour down his pant leg, Linda mocked the fatally wounded boy by saying, “Oh, little boy peed his pants. He ain’t so tough now.”

David’s role was to hold Luke back and push him up against the wall so he could be hit some more. 

 

During questioning by state police investigators, Linda tried to play herself off as a demure, sweet lady, but investigators didn’t buy it.

At her sentencing, she apologized not to the victim’s family, but to her own.

Linda Morey, 58, served her time at Albion Correctional Facility, a medium security prison west of Rochester. David, who turns 31 years old on March 20, was housed in Cayuga Correctional Facility, southwest of Syracuse. A source close to David says David learned a trade while in prison and will work hard to get a job, that he now has his head straight, is “a really good boy, needs some help and guidance.”

As a condition of their parole, the Moreys will not be allowed to associate with individuals with a criminal history. That means they cannot reunite with any of the former cult members who were also charged in this case, including the victim’s mother, Deborah Leonard, who was released from prison last month.

 

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Where are They Now? Word of Life Cult Members

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WHERE ARE THEY NOW? [As of February 7, 2020]

 

Grace Leonard turns 20 years old this month. After the cult imploded, she finally got her wish to attend public school, from which she eventually graduated. Grace was recently seen visiting her sister, Sarah Ferguson, at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. She brought Sarah’s two youngest children to the visit.

Seth* Wright is reported to be MIA in the community. However, he visits Pastor Tiffanie Irwin so regularly in prison that the prison staff knows him by name.

Chris Leonard went into foster care, graduated from Rome Free Academy, and attended college at SUNY Oswego. He is 21 years old.

Kathleen* Morey (defendant Linda Morey’s daughter) went to college (cult members had not been allowed to attend college).

Linda Morey’s husband retired from his job as a parole officer.

Judy Parry, the cult’s oldest member, and one of the most loyal, died last summer.

Jerry Irwin is still dead. Attempts to resurrect him have thus far failed.

The Wrights: In the end, WLCC was made up of three families: the Irwins, the Leonards, and the Wrights (and a handful of members unrelated to anyone else). Some of those members remained loyal to the Irwins through their sentencing and imprisonment. Sources say the Wright siblings, forced apart for decades by the Irwins (even though some lived next door to each other), have recently reunited.

Sarah: I was told by one of Sarah’s close family members that Sarah is no longer talking to Tiffanie Irwin in prison, because Tiffanie won’t tell her what went on the night Luke was killed, after Sarah fell asleep. This indicates that Sarah has deluded herself into thinking someone did something to Luke beyond the out-of-control flogging she delivered him, and that whatever else (supposedly) happened is what ultimately killed him. Last fall, the 37-year-old lost her appeal. She will not be released, earliest, until she is 54 years old.

Traci Irwin lives in the Buffalo area and is remarried. Her new name is Traci Tlustos. On a social media page, she refers to her new husband as the “love of [her] life.” Apparently Jerry wasn’t. Traci has/had been attending college full time, and in 2018 made the Dean’s List at Niagara County Community College. She is reportedly going to school to become a veterinarian (unconfirmed).

Daniel Irwin lives in the Buffalo area. He has a girlfriend, and she is on track for giving birth to his child out of wedlock. This is something that would’ve been unheard of in the cult.

Kristel Leonard and Helen Lehrer divorced their spouses, the result of arranged marriages, and married each other.

Rich Dibble (not a cult member – he’s the Anglican priest who deprogrammed Bruce) continues to visit Bruce in prison, and works on his family’s farm, High Hopes Acres.

Deborah Leonard celebrated her 64th birthday a free woman, having been released from prison last month. She is on parole supervision. None of Debi’s relatives took her in, though they have contact with her. She is reportedly living in a halfway house in Utica, and believes Without a Prayer is a book of lies. Someone mailed Debi a copy of the book to read while she was in prison. Her only comment to this individual was, “It’s a nice picture of Luke.” Debi is in total denial of her actions that resulted in her son’s death. She has not visited her husband in prison, nor will she communicate with him, presumably because he has disowned the cult and has contact with his daughter, Kristel (who is not Debi’s biological daughter).

Bruce Leonard turns 70 this year. He is the only cult member charged in Luke’s death who has been fully deprogrammed, accepts responsibility for his actions, and denounces the cult. He will be in prison four more years.

Pastor Tiffanie Irwin, 34, will be released from prison six more years.

David Morey, 30, will be freed from prison this month, after serving his full sentence. He will be on parole for three years.

Linda Morey, 58, will be released from prison this month, after serving her full sentence at Albion, a women’s prison northwest of Rochester. She will be on parole for three years.

Joseph Irwin, 26, is serving his time in Attica, a maximum security prison, one of the most brutal in the nation. He will be out in two-and-a-half years.

The Word of Life building was sold last year.

In October of last year, I participated in the burning Tiffanie’s pulpit, and other items of Irwin mind torture that had been in the building. Following the publicized bonfire, someone destroyed Luke’s memorial that relatives and community members put together at the head of the Word of Life building driveway. After public community outrage over it, and calls for an arrest in the crime, someone returned all of the items, dumping them across the fence, in a white trash bag.

Ezekiel*, the youngest Leonard child, is 16 years old.

Jayden* (pseudonym for Debi’s oldest son) has custody of Grace, Ezekiel*, and Sarah’s third child (Noah*).

Sarah’s two oldest children (Gabriel*, Ada*) are living with their biological father. Sarah’s youngest child (Ivy*) is with the child’s paternal grandmother.

Rick Wright’s family held a garage sale at their Clayville home in the fall of 2018. Someone tipped me off that they’d recognized items from the cult at the sale. I went to the sale (unbeknownst to them) and purchased some of those items, including a coffee mug that I later discovered had belonged to Tiffanie. As I was writing the book and drinking from my new mug, I was surprised to see a picture of my mug in a police search warant photo.

[At top is the police photo on my computer monitor. Below is the mug on my desk.]

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Pictures of Lucas Leonard

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Why isn’t there more about Luke in the book? The storyline is of a boy raised in isolation, taught to shun society. I wish there were legions of individuals wanting to share their memories and photos of Luke, but being that he lived all but hidden from the world—they don’t exist.

To care about someone, we need to know what that person is like. Digging up information about Luke was one of my biggest challenges in writing Without a Prayer.

Below are some photos of Luke (and his family) that were not in the book. Sadly, there are a few other pictures of Luke that really capture the flavor of who he was, but the individuals who took them slapped my hand for even asking permission to publish them. I don’t understand why. But please enjoy these, and get to know Luke.

[*Thank you to Kristel Leonard for providing these photos, and video.]

Luke was a daredevil. Here he is doing a flip off the roof of the family’s Clayville home.

Luke, Chris, Grace.

Luke (youngest brother in front of him), Grace, and Chris (blue sweatshirt).

Baby Luke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luke, at 17, won a sidewalk chalk competition. He loved drawing.

Baby Luke.

Baby Luke.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luke with his oldest sister, Kristel.

Bruce Leonard with Luke.

Baby Luke being held by a relative. His sister Sarah Ferguson is behind him. Clockwise, Bruce Leonard is next to Sarah, then Bruce’s brother Jason.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Luke made this birthday card for his oldest sister, Kristel.

The center spread of the birthday card that Luke made for his sister Kristel.

A little Luke being held by a relative. His sister Sarah Ferguson is next to him (r).

 

Baby Luke with sister Sarah Ferguson.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bruce Leonard entertaining out-of-town guests on the Leonard family farm in Richfield Springs, NY.

Bruce Leonard on the family farm (r) with his brother Jason, and their mother.

Bruce Leonard on the Leonard family farm in Richfield Springs, NY.

Baby Luke with sister Sarah Ferguson.

A younger Bruce Leonard tapping a maple tree.

Ezekiel*, Grace, Luke’s cousin, Luke, Chris.

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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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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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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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Giving Breast Cancer Pink the Middle Finger

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Susan Rahn Stickit2Stage4 breast cancer

[by Susan Ashline]

In the thick of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, one woman living with the disease is engaged in hand-to-keyboard combat against the color pink.

I remember when Susan Rahn followed me on Twitter. As with all my new Twitter follows, I checked to make sure her account wasn’t spam, my only barrier to following back. It wasn’t.

But I didn’t want to follow her back.

Her cover photo was skeleton hands with the middle fingers sticking up, pink ribbons wrapped around the bones. Her Twitter handle: @Stickit2Stage4. Susan had metastatic breast cancer, which is cancer that has spread to other organs. And I saw death. My instinct was to distance myself. I wondered, briefly, how I would feel if I’d gotten to know her and she died. I didn’t want to risk feeling hurt. Twitter suggests followers based on who you follow, and I anticipated an onslaught of follows from women who were waging a futile fight for their lives. I foresaw my breath squeezed out by a digital feed full of doom. And most of Susan’s tweets were about metastatic breast cancer. I thought – I have nothing to offer her.

Eventually – hesitatingly – I did follow her back.

Still, I ignored her.

In August, I found myself at the New York State Fair facing a wall of women captured in photo frames with pink matte board, smiling and lively. But most were no longer alive – they were dead. It was a breast cancer victim/survivor display that I stared at unflinchingly, reading the women’s profiles and silently wishing each back to life.

A week later, I saw Susan’s tweet: “Wearing a color does nothing. Try REAL actions. Make a meal, clean – that is support.”Susan Rahn Twiitter breast cancer awareness tweet

That made sense. I could do that. I knew how to clean.

I messaged Susan through Twitter, offering to clean. She replied – swiftly – with a rant against what she called “the pinkification” of breast cancer. “Who does that help?” she wrote. “So I tweet and call out the BS for what it is, in the hopes that I can maybe change the landscape of the public’s perception of breast cancer.” She ended with, “I deeply appreciate your offer. I promise to let you know if I do need help. I’m sure my time is coming.”

The corners of my mouth instantly mirrored the frown-face emoji that punctuated her last sentence.

I had been under the impression a portion of proceeds from sales of pink items went to breast cancer research, and I told her so.

She said that was a myth, “And if money does happen to go to research, less than 2% goes to fund research for metastatic breast cancer; the cancer that kills.” She wrote that 113 women die every day from breast cancer; a projected 40,450 men and women in the U.S. this year. “Those are the same numbers as the height of the AIDS epidemic, but no one puts any urgency on breast cancer research because they focus on awareness.”

I offered to write about Susan’s war on the pinkification of breast cancer. I could do that. I knew how to write.

No sooner did she accept my offer, that I got a message from Jeff Rahn, another of my Twitter followers: “As you probably picked up on, Susan is very passionate about the various ‘pink scams’ out there and is trying so hard to get actual research instead of awareness campaigns. We are all aware.”

She was his wife, he said, and a great mom and step-mom. And he thanked me for reaching out to her. “Just acknowledging a terminally ill person means more than you can imagine. So often they are forgotten.”

When I called Susan for the interview, I confessed my reluctance to follow her on Twitter. I wondered aloud whether my reaction to shut her out was not uncommon, and perhaps the reason her message, of the need for more emphasis on research, wasn’t reaching the general population.

“Which is why I’m so loud and obnoxious,” said Susan, acknowledging my reaction wasn’t a surprise.  Social media users labeled her angry and bitter, she said. “They think I’m angry and bitter because of my diagnosis. But ya know what? Anger and bitterness gets sh*t done.”

Susan said she feels awareness campaigns are partly to blame for the instinct to block out those who are terminal. “The message has been that breast cancer is a treatable and curable disease. If you catch it early, like if you catch a cold, you deal with the symptoms, treat it and go on with your life. But that’s not the case, because 6-10% of women – like me – get diagnosed with stage four from day one. And you don’t necessarily have to have any prior family history.”

Maybe I’d shut the door on Susan’s Twitter page because she represented what I feared – that she could be me.

Lingering rib pain led to Susan’s diagnosis of stage four breast cancer just months after getting a clean read from a routine mammogram. She was a newlywed, not quite a year into her second marriage. She had one son, her only biological child. Genetic testing turned up no markers for breast cancer. She was 43 years old.

She was told she had months to live. It was August 2013.

Susan continues to fight for her life – and the lives of others – by advocating for metastatic breast cancer research. She is the editor of a newly-formed digital magazine, The Underbelly: Illuminating Breast Cancer’s Darker Side (TheUnderbelly.org), which launched an October Twitter campaign (#WhyIsThisPink) to make the consumer aware that many merchants collecting money from selling pink items are simply lining their own pockets.

“It’s okay if something’s pink, as long as the money is going to the right place,” said Susan, who hopes The Underbelly will draw an audience well beyond Breast Cancer Awareness Month. “We want to bring the ugliness and the things that people don’t want to talk about into the light. It’s not all pink and fun, and it’s not a sorority. The narrative needs to change.”

Author’s note: I’ve since learned a lot about breast cancer pink. Susan’s opinion doesn’t stand alone – far from it. Voices can be heard all over the internet calling for an end to the “pink” campaign and a focus on dollars for research to find a cure. The pink campaign was successful in raising awareness. Now, it’s time to move it forward. #BreastCancerRealityCheck

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What Does Your Front Porch Say About You?

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[by Susan Ashline]

We walked door-to-door this week in what is known as a “bad part of town” in the city of Rochester. I’m familiar with the street name from my days as a news reporter. It was always on the scanner; shootings, stabbings, and miscellaneous crimes.

In spots, the patch of lawn separating each house could be measured in inches and not feet. We saw one garage that had a house number. We saw houses with broken steps and broken siding and peeling paint. There were broken windows, broken doors.

But there were fabulous porches; well-kept porches and elaborate porches. And there were amazing gardens in front of them that rivaled any you’d see at an admission-entry conservatory. There were porches adorned with flowering baskets more stunning than those at displayed at landscaping businesses. One garden showcased a marvelous variety of colorful flowers, weed-free rows, and an immaculate brick walk-way lined by solar lights.

And one porch had a neighbor on it asking the other neighbor if she could borrow the key to another neighbor’s house to check on it while they away, because she didn’t have the neighbor’s key with her. “It’s that kind of neighborhood,” she told me cheerfully, and smiled as she said it.

Porches had like-new bench swings and patio furniture. One had a hand-designed piece of art stuck into the ground at the base of the front steps; nothing more than twisted metal with blue glass bottles hanging from it, but it was attractive and unique. Most of the porches had new looking placards with painted flowers or sayings, or simply announcing “welcome.”

What does that say about a person?

Had I walked onto dirt-covered, unornamented porches with rotting, wooden furniture, it would’ve gone unregistered. But the porches . . . I noticed the porches.

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Cheryl’s Shenanigans (in the Monroe County Executive’s Office)

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[by Susan Ashline]

As attacks on Cheryl Dinolfo’s coiffure make way for assaults on her integrity, it’s timely to update my squelched efforts to get public information connected to her husband, a county court judge.

Stories on the Monroe County Executive’s questionable role in the recent I-Square/COMIDA scandal go down like dry toast. I’ll try to make my read more palatable. Come along on this fun (if not troubling) little exercise in the machinations of county politics. Put yourself in the driver’s seat by clicking on the linked text.

I’ve completed a manuscript of my first book, which is currently under review by literary agents. A Jacket off the Gorge is the true story of a criminal case handled by Monroe County Court Judge Vincent Dinolfo. He is married to Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo. The judge has been made aware of the manuscript. He hasn’t read it, of course, but he knows how it reads. He was there.

Here’s a snapshot of one chapter: Judge Dinolfo reverses a decision by a higher court judge (State Supreme Court Judge Alex Renzi) only to rescind it weeks later, after admitting that striking down Renzi’s ruling meant deciding Renzi had acted improperly.

In October 2012, Judge Dinolfo requested – and received – a disc containing recorded jail calls between myself and a defendant (the subject of my book). Without giving a reason publicly, Judge Dinolfo listened to these recordings while the defendant’s case was still pending before him; prior to sentencing.

I want the disc.

According to Robert Freeman, Director of the state’s Committee on Open Government, I am entitled to the recordings. Because I was a party to the phone calls, the county cannot deny my request based on “invasion of privacy.” I cannot invade my own privacy.

This past October, while Cheryl Dinolfo was stumping for county executive, I filed a Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request to get the disc that was in her husband’s hands. It went ignored. After Cheryl Dinolfo took office I tried again, in many different ways, to get a response to my request. It continued to go unanswered.

Eventually, I emailed an appeal on January 15 to William Napier, Dinolfo’s Communications Director who’d previously ignored all of my contacts. I blogged about it within 24 hours. And the blog got shared all over social media by former news colleagues and others. And I tweeted it to Cheryl Dinolfo’s Twitter page and to her staff. My blog got thousands of hits, leaving me rolling in 3¢ per day revenue from Google AdSense.

The following week, I received an envelope in the mail from the county post-marked January 20. Inside was a letter dated January 14, a supposed response to my initial FOIL request from months earlier.

Isn’t that fantastic(al)? It either takes a county employee six days to drop an envelope in the mail, or the letter wasn’t actually written on January 14, but predated.

I had asked for (1) the jail visit log showing the dates of my visits with the defendant during a specific time span, (2) the jail phone log showing only the calls made to me, and (3) the phone recordings (particularly the disc in Judge Dinolfo’s possession). I was sent the visit log, but not the phone log. And though I requested the visit log from October, I was not sent any from October, but was sent several from November. Also included was a bill for the November logs I never requested. I guess that happens when you’re hurriedly photocopying just any “stuff” you can get your hands on in order to get a letter in the mail to stop the flap.

As for the call log and the phone recordings, I was flat out denied. How can I be denied the phone log based on “unwarranted invasion of [my own] personal privacy,” yet sent the visit log (albeit the wrong dates)?

At least I had Napier’s predated reply, so I took the opportunity to write a champion FOIL appeal to Deputy County Executive Thomas Van Strydonck citing all sorts of case law which undeniably proves I am entitled to the information requested. And of course Van Strydonck couldn’t reject it (I foolishly thought). He is, after all, a former judge.

After patting myself on the back, I mailed the appeal (read it here and here, and be equally as proud).

Soon after, I got an envelope from the county post marked February 12 (that it’s torn is testament to how excited I was to finally get my request filled), and inside was a letter from Van Strydonck dated… wait – dated February 12? Unlike Napier, he was able to mail it the same day he sealed the envelope.

To my surprise, it was not only a denial, but worded the same as Napier’s — verbatim — a couple sentences handily dismissing my request, giving the appearance my appeal was never even read. Van Strydonck’s letter even sloppily cited an incorrect date. His letter used vague language, side-stepping the mandate that the office detail reasons for the denial. It used the same ridiculous and inapplicable “invasion of privacy” excuse, yet did not state which records were denied based on this.

At the recommendation of Robert Freeman, director of the Committee on Open Government, I’d included a request for written certification if any of the records I requested no longer existed. That is my legal right. However, I received no certification. Instead, the letter claimed the phone recordings were only available to me through subpoena, citing civil court law (something Freeman said is incorrect, as civil court law is unrelated to FOIL).

Then – something curious happened. My website visitor plug-in showed a visitor was referred to my site by Google using the search terms “Susan Ashline Judge Vincent Dinolfo.” How odd. Who would ever have reason to put those two names together in a search bar? The visitor came from Irondequoit, the town where Cheryl and Vincent Dinolfo reside. It could be anyone. (Thanks to all of you for stopping by, and — smile, you’re on IP surveillance).

After that, something even more peculiar happened. An attorney who Judge Dinolfo knows to be a friend of mine told me the judge pulled him aside one day in the Hall of Justice and said he’d gotten a FOIL request for the disc. This friend, who has no personal relationship with Judge Dinolfo, says the judge told him he no longer has the disc, that he’d gotten rid of it.

Yet, I got no certification the disc was no longer in existence. Instead, I got a denial stating I would need to subpoena it. And how did Judge Dinolfo know about my FOIL request? If I was required to get the recordings by subpoena, why would county staff approach the judge with my request for the disc?

Why should anyone care about my story? Because one day, they might want to exercise their right to obtain public information. I could file legal action to get the information I seek, but I don’t have the money to throw away fighting for that which I am entitled. Rights are only available to those who can afford them. As citizens, we expect – and deserve – better than public officials who cherry pick which individuals’ rights to honor, and which to trample.

 

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No “Freedom” of Information at Monroe County Exec’s Office

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[by Susan Ashline]

At the Monroe County Executive’s office, Freedom of Information requests are more like public records held captive.

I learned the Communications Department is in major upheaval, and my request for public records may not be the only one going ignored.

This is ironic, considering the new County Executive, Cheryl Dinolfo, is pushing to create an Office of Public Integrity to make Monroe County “the most ethical and transparent government in the nation.”

Yet, access to public records is clearly not a priority for Dinolfo. A source tells me the Communications Department has undergone a “complete overhaul” and may not know the status of any Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) request. There, it is more appropriately SOIL (Suppression of Information).

It was more than three months ago I filed a FOIL request. Though I got confirmation it was received, it’s been months of chasing down the status, all of which has led to dead ends. The agency has gone well beyond the deadline for responding. Simply ignoring the FOIL constitutes a denial. However, my initial request asked for a denial in writing so I could make an effective appeal. Even a denial in writing has been denied me.

Coincidentally, my FOIL involves Judge Vincent Dinolfo, husband of the new County Executive. Granted, Cheryl Dinolfo wasn’t in office when I filed my FOIL request, but she was campaigning (same party affiliation as the outgoing County Executive, and the party’s pick). And now, she’s there. And all of my phone calls and messages have gone ignored, and all of my emails unanswered. It certainly crossed my mind this was personal.

But I even sent a tweet, and that went unanswered, too. In fact, though Dinolfo’s Twitter page has been updated to her title of County Executive, the last tweet from her account was in the middle of December. I can understand social media taking a back seat to other duties, but access to public records should be a priority.

What happens now? Based on total lack of response, I have filed an appeal. Unfortunately, my appeal is required to go to William Napier, Director of Communications, the same individual charged with handling FOIL requests.The same staffer who ignored my original request, emails, and phone messages.

Robert J. Freeman, Executive Director of the State Department’s Committee on Open Government, has issued a verbal opinion stating my appeal should be granted, as the records I request fall under my right of access to government records.

It is a shame I have to fight so hard to get public records to which I am entitled.

When an appeal is filed, the agency is required to respond within 10 business days. If other FOIL requests have gone ignored, this could mean resources at the already strapped Communications Department may need to be almost exclusively devoted to filling FOIL appeals. If the appeals are not answered in the required time frame, the Monroe County Executive’s office will stand in violation of the law. The citizen’s remedy for that is to file an Article 78 of the Civil Practice Law and Rules. A judge may award the citizen attorney fees. And we all know who ends up paying when the county gets taken to court.

Let me be the first to drop a complaint in that box at the Office of Public Integrity ribbon cutting.

FOIL APPEAL

FOIL APPEAL

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