Leaving a Cult: Former Members Reveal Inner Workings of Church Whose Members Attacked 2 Teens

People/June 16, 2018

By Chris Harris

Nathan Ames was just a teenager when his parents decided it was time to leave the Word of Life Christian Church in Chadwicks, New York. The insular sect’s leadership had recently changed hands and his parents could no longer watch the organization gradually decline into a reclusive faction of frightened malcontents.

“There were a lot of good things that had been going on at the church, but it slowly and increasingly got controlling,” Ames previously told PEOPLE about his experience.

“People were being mentally abused over time and they’d become sheltered from the outside world as a result,” he said. “It got to the point where, if you watched television, you shut the commercials off because you didn’t want any external influences.”

Ames was glad his family left the church when they did. He only wished that Lucas Leonard’s family had done the same.

Instead, Bruce and Deborah Leonard stayed, becoming more and more entrenched in Word of Life. The couple was so loyal that on Oct. 11, 2015, their dedication drove them to attack their teenage children.

Soon after declaring their intentions to defect, 19-year-old Lucas and his younger brother, then-17-year-old Christopher, were beaten over 12 insufferable hours — kicked, punched and whipped.

Lucas died from his wounds while Christopher continues to recover from injuries sustained at the hands of nine Word of Life congregants, including the boys’ parents and the church’s pastor, Tiffanie Irwin.

Lucas’ death, the events surrounding it and the church itself will be featured on Monday night’s episode of People Magazine Investigates: Cults, airing on Investigation Discovery and exclusively previewed above.

The nine people who participated in the fatal 2015 attack in upstate New York are sitting behind bars and the church itself has been completely dissolved.

Former Word of Life members, like Ames and Chadwick Handville, were left to rebuild their lives — and many are said to be thriving now that they’re out from under Irwin’s control, who took over for her father, Jerry, upon his death in 2012.

“Normal churches are not like this,” Ames insisted to PEOPLE in 2016. “This is not what a real church is. It’s sad that people see this and think that’s what church is. I think it’s a cult simply because mind control was used, and because the Irwins made claims that they were the only way to heaven. People believed that.”

For their roles in Lucas’ killing, his father, Bruce, received a 10-year sentence after pleading guilty to two counts of assault. His wife, Deborah, was sentenced to five years on the same charges as well as a single charge of manslaughter.

Nearly all of the other suspects admitted some responsibility in the attack, including Irwin, who avoided a murder charge by pleading guilty to manslaughter and assault and was sentenced to 12 years.

Sarah Ferguson, the Leonard brothers’ half-sister, was the only defendant involved in the attack to decline a plea deal. In July 2016, she was convicted by a jury of manslaughter and assault — but was cleared of murder. She was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

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