A “counseling session” held at a church in New York state earlier this week turned deadly, resulting in the death of a 19-year-old man and severe injuries to his 17-year-old brother. The two young men were subjected to hours of physical punishment at the Word of Life Christian Church in New Hartford, New York, "in hopes that each would confess to prior sins and ask for forgiveness,” New Hartford police Chief Michael Inserra said Wednesday, CBS News reported.
After a Sunday night church service, the congregation held a “counseling session” for the two brothers, Lucas Leonard, 19, and Christopher Leonard, 17. The session turned violent, and family members took Lucas Leonard to the hospital Monday, where he later died. "It was determined that the combination of injuries and the duration of assault contributed to his death," Inserra said, and added that the cause of death was pending further examination, CNN reported.
Christopher Leonard was hospitalized in serious condition after blunt force trauma. Police did not say whether weapons were involved, but acknowledged that “feet and fists” were.
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The young men’s parents, Bruce Leonard, 65, and Deborah Leonard, 59, each face one count of first-degree manslaughter. Four other church members were charged with second-degree assault. All the defendants have pleaded not guilty, and a preliminary hearing has been scheduled for Friday.
The Word of Life is not a “mainline” church, and members have had little interaction with neightbors, said the Rev. Abraham Esper of St. Patrick’s-St. Anthony’s Church in Chadwicks, New York. CNN reported. He had heard “very loud and very disruptive” noises coming from the church some afternoons and nights, including the beating of drums and barking dogs.
"We always joked around and said they were a cult, which now we're believing that they probably were," said Tara Litz, who has lived next to the church for 10 years, CBS News reported. "Just the odd behavior. It's a gated community. You line up in a row, they all go in together, the gates close."
"It makes me wonder what is going on if this is a church and it's of God," said Lynn Laventure, whose parents have lived across the street from the church, CNN reported. "There is such thing as a child having to have a punishment if something was wrong ... but not a beating. We would have never in a million years guessed anything was ... wrong."