Ex-member says church was 'tyrannical,' compares it to Jonestown

For the past 15 years, Chadwick M. Handville has done everything he could to forget the time he spent as a member, worship leader and trustee at the Word of Life Church in Chadwicks.

Utica Observer-Dispatch, New York/October 15, 2015.

By Philip A. Vanno

For the past 15 years, Chadwick M. Handville has done everything he could to forget the time he spent as a member, worship leader and trustee at the Word of Life Christian Church in Chadwicks.

But despite his best efforts, which have included everything from seeking spiritual healing to moving clear across the country to Phoenix, the 46-year-old has not been able to escape the damage that 10 years of living in a “Hollywood nightmare” has wrought on his life.

“It was horrible,” said Handville, who has divorced his wife — whom he met at the Church — and lost touch with his stepchildren since leaving the church in June 2000. “There was constant manipulation, intimidation, fear and lies. And seeing what has happened now all over the news, it's bringing it all back to the surface.”

Tragedy struck the church this week with the death of 19-year-old Lucas Leonard and the beating of his 17-year-old brother Christopher Leonard. The boys’ parents, Bruce and Deborah Leonard of Clayville, have been charged with manslaughter in Lucas’ death.

Four other members of the church — Joseph Irwin, 26, of Chadwicks; David Morey, 26, and Linda Morey, 54, both of Utica; and the Leonards' daughter Sarah Ferguson, 33, also of Clayville — are charged with felony second-degree assault in what officials have labeled as a counseling session that went terribly wrong.

Handville was familiar with the church when he moved to the area in the early 1990s since two of his relatives were members. When he decided to join soon after, he said everything appeared normal under then-pastor Richard Wright.

That all changed, he said, once the founder of the church, Jerry Irwin, returned to the area a couple of years later and began to methodically assert his control over the congregation that Handville said consisted of a core group of about 30 followers.

“The name Jim Jones comes to mind,” Handville said of Irwin, referring to the founder and leader of the Peoples Temple, best known for the mass murder-suicide in November 1978 of 909 of its members in Jonestown, Guyana.

Attempts to make contact with officials from the Word of Life Church on Thursday were unsuccessful.

Irwin died a few years ago at which time his wife, Traci, and daughter Tiffany assumed control.

“If I had to describe him in one word it would be: tyrannical,” Handville said. “We would work nine to 10 hours a day then go to church and work on projects for another eight hours and then you go home and start all over again.

“We were sleep deprived and easily manipulated and lied to,” he added “Everyone knows this is the marking of a cult. This is how you control the masses.”

Handville said that control was asserted to make members do things such as renovate the third floor of the old school house on Oneida Street where the Word of Life services took place into a “luxurious residence” for Irwin’s family — which also included Joseph and his brother Daniel —to “strongly encouraging” the children of the congregation to be educated by Traci Irwin.

While Handville said he never saw physical force used to discipline any members during his time in Word of Life, he said Jerry Irwin instead instituted a system in which anyone who questioned his authority was berated during his lengthy Sunday sermons and ostracized from the rest of the group.

That’s what he said often happened to the Leonard family, with whom he and his family had become friends with through he and Bruce working together in Handville’s painting business.

“Bruce never spoke an adverse word against anyone and I never heard him complain about any of the treatment he received,” Handville said. “He was a very kind man when I knew him. He loved his boys and was very proud of them.”

While authorities have said they’ve seen no evidence of sexual abuse, Handville said he was aware of “possible sexual misconduct” among underage members of the church prior to his arrival, which he said put him on high alert over the safety of the three children he shares with his ex-wife.

Ultimately, Handville and his family were driven from the church when he began to question Irwin’s methods, and after a final confrontation with the leader in which “he felt threatened,” Handville and his family were put out on the street when the congregation member who owned their mobile home evicted them.

After eventually finding an apartment and spending the next two years being counseled by another local church and becoming infatuated with studying the psychology of cults in an attempt to understand what happened to him, Handville said he moved his family out west and tried to never look back.

“I’m ashamed to say I ever knew those horrible, hateful people,” he said of the Irwins. “There are people there that are being controlled and that place needs to be shut down.”

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