Eight members of the controversial Word of Life Church, located in New Hartford, New York, including the pastor, Tiffanie Irwin, were indicted on 13 counts, including second degree murder and kidnapping, for the vicious beating death of Lucas Leonard, a 19-year-old parishioner who was said to have “wanted out” of the group, according to CNN.
Charged with murder include Lucas Leonard’s father, Bruce, and Word of Life Church pastor, Tiffanie Irwin. Deborah Leonard, Lucas’ mother, has reportedly agreed to plead guilty to assault charges. In addition to the beating death of the 19-year-old, members of the Word of Life Church have also been charged in the assault of his brother, Christopher Leonard, who was 17 at the time of the assaults, which took place on Sunday, October 11.
The Word of Life Church is said to have existed for about 30 years, getting its start as a regular Pentecostal Church, founded by Jerry Irwin, according to the CBC.
A former member of the Word of Life Church between about 1990 and 2000, Chadwick Handville, described Jerry Irwin leaving the congregation for a period before returning, when he says things went “downhill.”
“What was off the wall was his attitude toward others,” Handville was quoted. “It wasn’t happy. He accused every male of lusting after his wife.”
Jerry Irwin is also accused with putting the congregation to work renovating the church, which included the Irwin’s residence. Members began the work voluntarily, but described that after a period of time working for Irwin his requests became like an “an expression of God’s will.”
“They sleep-deprive you because you become open to suggestions, usually what they’re teaching you,” Handville stated. “They’re breaking you down so they can build you up the way they want to.”
Irwin was also said to arrange marriages and turn husbands and wives against each other when convenient for him to do so. He was said to accuse men of lusting after his own wife, in order to turn men’s wives against them. Using this method, Irwin was said to be able to make woman parishioners more loyal to the Word of Life Church than to their husbands.
Irwin was reported to have suffered a stroke several years ago, which saw the leadership of the Word of Life Church being passed to his children Tiffanie, Daniel, and Joseph, and his wife, Traci. Each member of the Irwin family faces charges in the bizarre beating death of the innocent teen.
Christopher Leonard described he and his brother Lucas being beaten with a folded piece of four-foot-long cord after his brother expressed a desire to leave the church, according to CNN. Lucas’s injuries were reported to be so severe that medical personnel “thought he had been shot.” Christopher described attempting to perform CPR on his unconscious brother after he realized that he wasn’t breathing following the church members’ assault.
The beatings the teens endured were reported to have lasted 14 hours. Lucas and Christopher were said to have been “punched, kicked and whipped” for hours, until Lucas was dead.
“It was really sick,” a former student of the Word of Life Church school program, Nathan Ames, now 26, remembered being taught by Tiffanie Irwin, quoted by the New York Times. “The way she spoke to you was very degrading. You were like a little pawn in her eyes.”
On October 11, after watching her congregation dwindle for years as a result of unhappy parishioners, Tiffanie Irwin was reported to declare that a member of the Word of Life Church, Lucas Leonard, was practicing “witchcraft.” Said to fear that Lucas’ father, Bruce, might be the last of her loyal parishioners to leave, the suggestion that Lucas wanted out of the congregation was treated as a threat to church, leading to his brutal and senseless beating death.
[Photo by Tina Russelll/Observer-Dispatch via AP, Pool]