Exclusive Look Inside Deadly Word of Life Cult

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In 2015, Lucas Leonard, 19, died after being beaten by members of an Upstate New York cult, the Word of Life Christian Church. Nine individuals were convicted in connection with the crime, including Luke’s mother, father, and sister. The story is told in my book, Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult

The following are police photos from a search of the Word of Life property after Luke was taken to the hospital dead. 

Word of Life building in Chadwicks, NY. 
The “big sanctuary,” where Luke succumbed to his injuries, inside the Word of Life building.
The “small sanctuary,” where a gang of angry cult members beat brothers Christopher and Lucas Leonard, resulting in Luke’s death. 
The Irwin brothers had a fascination with weapons and war.
The Irwins had, at times, more than 100 animals inside the building. They ran a puppy mill, sold exotic birds, and kept pets of their own. 
Police discovered the Irwins had built an underground shooting range beneath the Word of Life building, where they had been firing high powered guns.
Cult members had built the Irwins a pricey apartment on the third floor of the Word of Life building.
Interior of the Word of Life building.
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Pictures of Lucas Leonard

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In my book, Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult, why isn’t there more about Luke? 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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