DA: Teen beaten to death may have tried to leave church

CHADWICKS, N.Y. --Six members of a the "Word of Life" church pleaded not guilty to charges of manslaughter and assault Thursday. Police say two teenage brothers were beaten by their parents, sister and other members of the secretive church in upstate New York.

Bruce Leonard (right) and Deborah Leonard New Hartford, N.Y., Police Department

The victims' parents, Deborah and Bruce Leonard, are not cooperating with investigators and remain in jail on first degree manslaughter charges in the beating death of their 19-year-old son Lucas.

An attorney for Deborah Leonard says he doesn't think the attack was her idea.

"I think that this was something she didn't foresee going this far," says Devin Garramore. "I think that she lost control of it and because she is a meek, timid type personality she was unable to stop it."

Four other church members are accused of assaulting Lucas' 17-year-old brother Christopher after church Sunday in the former school house building. District Attorney Scott McNamara says the beatings may have lasted more than ten hours.

"What we understand was that there was an issue about whether the older brother wanted to stay in the church," McNamara told CBS News. "There was a confrontation with the two parents and it turned physical."

evening news district attorney
Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara CBS News

McNamara says despite rumors in the community, he can only speak to the facts.

"People are saying a lot of things. All I can say is what we know. This was not a church that was on our radar, and there was something bizarre going on."

Neighbors claim the church's membership consists of four or five families and is run by Tiffanie Irwin, the daughter of the church's late founder. Investigators believe the church members home school their children inside this former public school compound bought in 1984.

NY church members charged with beating teens at "counseling session"

Several of those children were taken away yesterday by child protective services.

McNamara says he doesn't believe the attack was religious in nature. "It's our allegation that this was not a religious ritual or of that nature. For now, we are looking at it as a gang assault."

Authorities say several former church members are helping in the investigation. CBS News has learned the younger brother is conscious, cooperating, and expected to make a full recovery.

  • Michelle Miller
    Michelle Miller

    Michelle Miller is the co-host of "CBS This Morning: Saturday." As an award-winning correspondent based in New York, she has reported for all CBS News broadcasts and platforms. She joined CBS News in 2004.