Leaving a Cult: Former Members Reveal Inner Workings of Church Whose Members Attacked 2 Teens
Nathan Ames was glad his family left the church when they did — he only wished that Lucas Leonard's family had done the same
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.
• For more on the Word of Life Christian Church and the death of Lucas Leonard, watch Monday’s People Magazine Investigates: Cults at 9 p.m. ET on Investigation Discovery.
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.
Handville told PEOPLE he left the church several years before Lucas and Christopher were beaten, but he said that before coming to his senses, he believed every bit of what Irwin was preaching.
He said he recalls “the Irwins yelling at people as they tried controlling every aspect of the members’ lives.”
“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,” he said. “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.”
Ames said his parents decided to leave Word of Life after learning they needed the consent of church leaders to do just about anything.
“It got to a point where you couldn’t answer your phone,” he said. “You’d get a call from someone, but before you could pick up the call, you’d [have] 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 said his family was also averse to the church’s insistence that all other faiths were patently false.
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“We were told people would be going to hell if they were not part of the church,” he said. “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 said he has been forever changed by his time in the church — which warped his views of everything else.
“Being in that church has affected me a lot,” he said. “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.”
The People Magazine Investigates: Cults episode on Word of Life airs Monday (9 p.m. ET) on Investigation Discovery.