"Normal churches are not like this," Nathan Ames, a former Word of Life Christian Church member, tells PEOPLE

By Chris Harris
Updated May 19, 2016 08:30 AM
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Credit: Michael Greenlar/The Post-Standard & Syracuse.com

Former Word of Life Christian Church member Nathan Ames wasn’t the least bit surprised to learn of the Oct. 11, 2015, beating death of 19-year-old Lucas Leonard inside the insular congregation in Chadwicks, a small hamlet located just six miles outside of Utica, New York.

According to Ames, the Word of Life Christian Church – where nine congregants allegedly kicked, whipped, and punched Lucas and his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, who survived the merciless, 12-hour blitz – had lost its luster, transforming from a place of worship to a house of torment.

“There were a lot of good things that had been going on at the church, but it slowly and increasingly got controlling,” Ames, 26, tells PEOPLE. “People were being mentally abused over time and they’d become sheltered from the outside world as a result. It got to the point where, if you watched television, you shut the commercials off because you didn’t want any external influences.”

Ames, who claims to be working on a book about his experiences in the church, tells PEOPLE his parents decided to exit the congregation 13 years ago, soon after the death of its founder, Jerry Irwin.

He says his parents couldn’t continue to witness the organization gradually decline into a reclusive faction of frightened malcontents.

“Obviously, people who didn’t accept the Irwins and what they were professing were ostracized from the pulpit,” Ames explains – noting that, once the church was left to Irwin’s descendants, it became much more restrictive. “We were told we couldn’t talk to anybody. You’d go to church, but you couldn’t talk to anyone. They’d use manipulation and mind games to control people.”

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.

The fatal beating of Lucas Leonard was allegedly carried out by nine of the church’s congregants – including the teen’s own parents and half-sister.

Calls to attorneys for the defendants in the case were not returned.

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.

Christopher Leonard survived the attack, and criminal charges have been filed against eight different defendants, including the church’s 30-year-old pastor, Tiffanie Irwin.

Investigators allege the violence perpetrated against the Leonard brothers followed a declaration by the boys that they’d be abandoning their faith and leaving the Word of Life Christian Church.

In the wake of last year’s attacks, residents of Chadwicks began characterizing the church as a cult. However, prosecutors have stopped short of calling the Word of Life Church a cult organization.

Want to keep up with the latest crime coverage? Click here to get breaking crime news, ongoing trial coverage and details of intriguing unsolved cases in the True Crime Newsletter.

Ames admits he isn’t an expert on such groups, but has done substantial research on cults since learning of Lucas’ death.

“Normal churches are not like this,” Ames insists. “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.”

That’s what Arizona resident Chadwick Handville believed with conviction before leaving the church a number of years ago. Now, he’s convinced he made the right move leaving what he considers a dangerous cult.

“I remember the Irwins yelling at people as they tried controlling every aspect of the members’ lives,” Handville tells PEOPLE. “They’d always have people working on various projects to keep them busy. That’s a mind control technique; they’d have people cleaning the church building or making repairs to it. I can remember church leaders telling wives their husbands had badmouthed them. They told husbands about their wives and turned kids against their parents. They fostered an environment of bitterness.”

The breaking point for Ames’ parents, he claims, came when church members were told they would need permission from church leaders to do just about anything.

“It got to a point where you couldn’t answer your phone,” Ames says. “You’d get a call from someone, but before you could pick up the call, you’d give to call the Irwins and get permission to talk to that person. This kind of control didn’t happen overnight, but was the byproduct of slow indoctrination.”

Ames says his family was also averse to the church’s insistence that all other faiths were false.

“We were told people would be going to hell if they were not part of the church,” Ames claims. “For years after I left, I was worried I was going to go to hell. I don’t know why we believed the Irwins were the only way to get to heaven, but they would tell us they could see into our homes and that they were incapable of doing wrong or sinning.”

Ames didn’t walk away from the church unscathed, however. Neither did Christopher Leonard, who needed surgery to repair injuries to his leg, arm, abdomen and genitals.

“Being in that church has affected me a lot,” Ames explains. “It was all I knew and when we finally got out, I was held back a year in school and I was basically socially behind. The Irwins made me feel like a failure. And now, [Christopher] will be scarred for life. That’s something I wouldn’t wish on anybody. It makes me sick.”