Seven months ago, a little known church in a small New York town made national headlines after 19-year-old Lucas Leonard died from wounds he’d sustained during a brutal beating that was allegedly carried out by nine of the church’s congregants – including the teen’s own parents and his half-sister.
Lucas and his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, were allegedly clobbered, kicked, and whipped over 12 torturous hours, and now, criminal charges are currently pending against eight different defendants – among them, the church’s 30-year-old pastor, Tiffanie Irwin.
Christopher survived the Oct. 11 attack, which investigators claim followed a declaration from the Leonard brothers that they’d be abandoning their faith and leaving the Word of Life Christian Church.
In this week’s issue, PEOPLE delves deeper into the vicious alleged murder of Lucas Leonard and goes behind the brick walls of the mysterious church to discover what life was like for its members.
Next month, the cases of Lucas’s half-sister, Sarah Ferguson, 33, and his 65-year-old father, Bruce Leonard, will go to trial. Deborah Leonard, Lucas’ 60-year-old mother, has pleaded guilty to assault and has agreed to serve as the prosecution’s star witness.
The nature of the attacks in the church’s sanctuary room, as well as its secretive proceedings, led several in the media to question whether the Word of Life Church is, in fact, a cult group.
While law enforcement officials have shied away from such characterizations, one of the world’s foremost experts on fringe organizations has a firm opinion on the matter:
“After looking into the church’s history, this group, in my opinion, fits the core definition of a destructive cult,” explains Rick Ross, who founded the Cult Education Institute, based out of Trenton, New Jersey. “Most cults are small, family-based groups like this is, with members who’re largely related. And in this group, if you left the church, you were damned.”
Ross tells PEOPLE the Word of Life Church was established three decades ago by the late Jerry Irwin, the current pastor’s father.
Tiffanie’s mother, Traci, and her two brothers, Daniel and Joseph, are also facing charges stemming from the Oct. 11 beating.
For more on the story of the Leonard family and the investigation into the Word of Life Christian Church, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.
‘An Iron Fist’
Ross claims that Jerry Irwin was the “driving force behind this cult,” and actively “controlled the group like a dictator, with an iron fist.” Ross tells PEOPLE Tiffanie’s father reminds him “of David Koresh, because he was charismatic.”
He believes the church’s leaders utilized thought reform and coercive persuasion to indoctrinate new members and says from his analysis it appears “the church existed solely for the benefit of the Irwin family.”
Adds Ross: “From what I can tell, church leaders broke people down through coercion, persuasion, isolation, and the control of information. They would break them down and then mold them into a subservient mindset. The members were under the undo influence of the church’s leader, and they were not allowed to talk to people that left the church or people outside of that group.”
He continues: “It was a very isolated group. They were an enigma and not part of the community. Instead, they had disconnected from it, and that was a direct result of the leadership that created this bubble of control these people inhabited. The Irwins controlled everything members saw and experienced.”
Ross claims the Word of Life’s membership began dwindling several years ago, and believes the defection of even two more congregants was too great a loss for the church to recover from.
“The church was a sinking ship, if you will, and they couldn’t bear to lose any more members,” explains Ross. “In the Word of Life Christian Church, the members were intensely fearful and this kind of fear was instilled in these members on a daily basis, in order to keep them in the group. The Irwins were the means by which these people could be protected – be safe.”
They Isolated Members From the Rest of the Community
Like most cults, the Word of Life Christian Church is a destructive group, says Ross, that tried to dismantle the bonds of family while fleecing its membership.
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“They isolated members from the rest of the community and they home-schooled kids in a way that was to their detriment,” Ross says. “They exploited members for their money and for free labor. The Irwins basically ruled over these people for their own benefit. They lived at the expense of the other members and so, as people left, the Irwins became more desperate to retain the members they still had.
“The two boys that wanted to leave, they didn’t choose to be in that group,” Ross continues. “They were brought into the group by their own parents, who were under the influence of the Irwins.
“This was a cult of confession, where people were berated and harassed to confess everything to the leadership,” Ross adds. “There were no boundaries or limits to what the leaders could demand from you in disclosure. There was no private space in your life, and that’s what these kids went through.”
Ross: ‘Thousands of Similar Groups’
Ross is convinced that the Irwins “believed if these two boys left, it would cause others to leave – maybe even their parents, who were pivotal members of the group.”
Ross puts the Word of Life Church’s membership at “about 50” people, but notes that “there are thousands of groups like this across the U.S.” Members of the cult lived humble existences, Ross explains – but not the Irwins.
“When the Irwins wanted something, they just got it,” Ross says. “They were getting money from members who were also working their rear-ends off, maintaining the church building. This group was so out of touch with reality that they created their own world within that school building, and didn’t communicate much with the outside world. It was a world in which they Irwins ruled absolutely; no one questioned their authority.
He adds, “To question the Irwins and what they said was to question God – the word of God. The members’ critical thinking was subdued and when they had any doubts, it was blamed on Satan.”
The Irwins, according to Ross, would preach in sermons that all other churches and faiths were false, and that “there was no alternative [and] that they were the one and only true church in the world.”
‘They Considered These Boys to Be Demon-Possessed’
Ross claims the people who joined the Word of Life Church lived “in abject subjugation” to the Irwins.
“They submitted to them completely and reinforced them with their submission,” the cult expert says. “The Irwins had this sense of entitlement and empowerment. They were the ultimate authority: How dare any one question them or think a thought they didn’t approve of? They considered these boys to be demon-possessed because they dared to do the unthinkable: they questioned the authority of the Irwins and imagined a life free of the church. For that crime, they had to be punished and ultimately, this tragedy occurred – a tragedy that was in the making for years.”
Ross says that typically, most cult groups thrive on fear and perception. Never was this more true than with the Word of Life Church, he says.
“The common characteristic you see in all cults is this sense that there is nowhere else to go,” Ross tells PEOPLE. “If you leave our group, your life won’t work anymore, and terrible things will happen to you. The leader creates this unreasonable fear so he can control people. The Word of Life Church’s members were intensely fearful of demons and attacks by Satan, and this fear was instilled in them so they wouldn’t leave. They were influenced to think that the key to their safety was the Irwins and that the Irwins were the key to salvation.”