The church's neighbors claim the sect was "secretive" and that rumors had flown for years regarding the group's alleged cult status.
The residents of the sleepy hamlet of Chadwicks, New York, had long suspected there was something different about the Word of Life Christian Church – even before the night of Oct. 11, 2015, when two teenage brothers were savagely beaten over a dozen hours inside the church’s sanctuary room, according to police. Several neighbors tell PEOPLE they had figured the secretive sect was a cult, but were never able to confirm their suspicions.
“They weren’t friendly, and I had no idea what was going on in there,” explains 85-year-old Ray Toukatly, a retired utility company worker who fought in the Korean War and now lives across the street from the Word of Life Church’s headquarters.
“Those beatings were a big surprise to me, because they used to have this beautiful sign out front when that church first started,” Toukatly tells PEOPLE. “The sign would list the services, but a few years ago it just disappeared.”
Another church neighbor claims the congregation was “very secretive,” and says rumors had been flying for years regarding the group’s cult status.
But is the Word of Life Christian Church, which remains active seven months after the beatings that claimed the life of 19-year-old Lucas Leonard, a cult? Rick Ross, who has been cited internationally for his work on destructive cults, says there is no question about it.
“From what I can tell, church leaders broke people down through coercion, persuasion, isolation, and the control of information,” says Ross. “The members of this group 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 who were outside of the group. They were an enigma and they were not part of the community. Instead, they had disconnected from it.
Lucas died on Oct. 12, 2015, allegedly from wounds he had sustained after nine of the church’s congregants – including the teen’s own parents and his half-sister – pummeled him.
Lucas and his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, were allegedly attacked after telling church leaders they wanted to disassociate from the group. In response, the church’s 30-year-old pastor, Tiffanie Irwin, allegedly falsely accused the two teens of sexually abusing their younger siblings and cousins over the course of several years, investigators claim.
Irwin, according to Ross, took over for her late father, Jerry, who founded the Word of Life Christian Church more than 30 years ago. Irwin and her brothers, Joseph, 22, and Daniel, 24, are facing criminal charges stemming from Lucas’ killing. Irwin’s mother, Traci, who is 50, is also facing criminal charges.
“Some cults are more destructive than others, but from what I have observed and read, the destruction wrought by the Irwin family caused families to be disrupted and estranged,” Ross explains. “As with most cults, they manipulated people like pawns.”
The isolated group had, in recent years, lost touch with reality, according to Ross, who notes that Traci Irwin was referred to by church members as “mother,” meaning she likely wielded more power than her offspring.
“Church leaders believed that the boys leaving would cause others to leave – maybe even their parents, who were pivotal members of the group,” Ross explains. “What happened here had everything to do with the retention of members and the maintenance of control.”
Since Jerry Irwin’s death in 2012, Ross says the Word of Life Christian Church “became more and more out of control,” noting “there were no checks or balances and no one to tell the Irwins ‘No’ or ‘This is crazy.’ ”
Ross claims the Irwins professed in Sunday sermons that “there was no other church they could go to and that the truth was in this group, in the Word of Life Church.”
Those that left, Ross posits, “were considered damned. There was no place else to go. The Irwin family wanted people to feel like there was no alternative … that they were the one and only true church in the world.”
• 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
Ross says most cults share the notion that all other religions were ill-founded. Salvation could only be attained through the Irwins, he says.
“The leadership created this unreasonable fear to control people,” Ross explains. This, he says, is also how the cult’s leaders were able to coerce congregants into financing the Irwins’ lifestyles and performing free labor on the church’s building.
Nathan Ames, a former Word of Life devotee who absconded from the group some 13 years ago, tells PEOPLE the church’s roots weren’t nefarious.
• 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.
“At first, Jerry Irwin wanted to do good,” Ames insists. “But after he started getting power, he grew to like it, and all of a sudden, he had this power over people and he worked to keep it up and to maintain it. He was a snake who liked to play games.”
Charges are still pending against eight people who were allegedly involved in the beatings, including Lucas’ half-sister.
Scott McNamara, Oneida County’s District Attorney, tells PEOPLE he’s offered plea deals to most of the accused; all but one of the defendants – the boys’ 60-year-old mother, Deborah Leonard – rejected those offers.
Late last year, Deborah pleaded guilty to assault. A source close to the investigation claims she will serve as the prosecution’s star witness during the upcoming trials.
The remaining eight defendants will go to trial next month, where they are all pleading not guilty. All of the trials will likely conclude before the end of this year, according to officials.