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Wednesday, May 29, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Town Sues Church Blamed for Fatal Beating

(CN) - Blaming it for a brutal beating that left one teen dead and his brother badly injured, a town in central New York wants the Word of Life church enjoined as a public nuisance.

The secretive Word of Life Christian Church came into the spotlight this fall after the killing of 19-year-old Lucas Leonard led to the indictment of eight church members.

In reporting charges over Leonard's death this past October, The New York Times described a group based in New Hartford, N.Y., whose numbers had dwindled since the 2012 death of its founder, Jerry Irwin.

Before Leonard's death during a 12-hour "counseling session" - having been whipped with an electrical cord and subjected to other abuse - it seemed that the teen was planning to join the tide of church defectors.

The new church pastor, 29-year-old Tiffanie Iwrin, had summoned Leonard to the counseling session after he told her he was practicing witchcraft, according to the Times article.

Last month, a grand jury indicted Irwin, Leonard's parents and five others for their involvement in the brutal beating, which also caused severe injuries to 17-year-old Christopher Leonard, the dead man's younger brother.

New Hartford, pop. 22,166 in 2013, filed suit against the church on Dec. 8, claiming the town has duty to protect residents who "are extremely fearful" because of the church's conduct.

The church has an address of 3354 Oneida St. in the town's hamlet of Chadwicks, according to the complaint in Oneida County Supreme Court.

In its October article, the Times reported that Word of Life started as a Bible-study group called City on the Hill.

Members told the Times that founding pastor Jerry Irwin claimed in the 1990s that he was a prophet who could see and hear inside people's homes. Irwin reportedly moved his family into the church's three-story schoolhouse and soon began running menagerie within its walls, breeding birds, rabbits and Parti Yorkshire terriers.

While Irwin turned his family's living quarters on the third floor into a mansion, he used the school's old gymnasium as a sanctuary, according to the article.

The Times said young girls had to clean rabbit feces from the cages, while older members had to build and maintain the living quarters, a job that included repairing the roof, floors, plumbing, electrical wiring and gas lines into the night, sometimes breaking building codes.

One member told the Times he requests "began as voluntary and soon came to feel to members like an expression of God's will."

For the town of New Hartford, the Nov. 24 indictment was the last straw.

Citing that filing, its says "various members of the church including members and/or officers of the Word of Life Christian Church acting with the knowledge, direction and authority of the Word of Life Christian Church did cause the death of a member of said church to wit: Lucas Leonard, and serious physical injury to another member of the church, to wit: Christopher Leonard."

The town says the church's acts "constitute a public nuisance as defined by the New Hartford Code in that criminal activity involving assault and/or gang assault and/or harassment and/or disorderly conduct occurred at the defendant's premises, and as a result of the acts performed therein the quiet and reasonable use and enjoyment of adjacent or neighboring properties was detrimentally affected."

New Hartford's four-page lawsuit seeks an order permanently enjoining the church from "conducting any activities" at its premises, citing irreparable harm.

The town is represented by Hebert Cully with Calli, Calli & Cully in Utica, N.Y.

The church could not be reached for comment.

Census records describe the town of New Hartford as more than 96 percent white with a median family household income of $45,827, representing nearly $12,000 less than the state average.

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