Login Form

People Exclusive: Inside the Leadership of the Word of Life Church: Is Tiffanie Irwin Running a Killer Cult

AddThis Social Bookmark Button

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 two teenage brothers were savagely beaten after 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 until the night of Oct. 11, 2015.

"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."

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.

"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.

For more from People and this story: http://www.people.com/article/inside-world-life-church-cult-death-beating

 

Haute Tease

  • Kings Review - Halle Berry and Daniel Craig Team Up to Create Riveting Drama

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    Kings, from Maven Pictures and The Orchard, present the story of life in 1992 Los Angeles, a city deeply divided, with shocking inner city violence and explosive tensions between the LAPD and the communities they serve.

     
  • My Cousin Rachel Review – Intriguing, Gripping, A Spellbinding Mystery

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    My Cousin Rachel, from Fox Searchlight Pictures and Free Range Films, presents the story of a charming widow, of beguiling beauty, sophisticated grace, whose husband mysteriously dies but not before he sends alarming letters which accuse her of arranging his death.

     
  • Disney Board of Directors Extend Bob Iger’s Contract Through 2016

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    BURBANK, Calif., July 1, 2013—The Walt Disney Company (NYSE:DIS) Board of Directors announced today that it has extended Robert A. Iger’s tenure as CEO and Chairman through the expiration of his contract on June 30, 2016 under his existing contractual terms as CEO.

     
  • “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “The Jungle Book’” and “Deepwater Horizon,” Remain Contenders In VFX Oscar® Race

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences today announced that ten films remain in the running in the Visual Effects category for the 89th Academy Awards® with the final five announced January 7, 2017.  

  • Submission Deadlines For 2016 Oscars® Approaching

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences today published its list of upcoming submission deadlines for 89th Academy Awards® consideration. The 89th Oscars® will be held on Sunday, February 26, 2017 and televised in 225 countries.  

  • Update: Gunman Kills at least 58; Injures more than 500 in Las Vegas Concert Shooting

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    A lone gunman, barricaded inside a hotel room overlooking an outdoor concert at the Mandalay Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, has killed at least 58 and injured more than 500 in the deadliest mass shooting in American history.

     
  • Health, Wellness: 22 Popular and Unusual Gifts Ranked From Least To Most Dangerous

    AddThis Social Bookmark Button

    Toys, for all ages, bring excitement, pleasure and hours of fun! For the gift giver nailing that one perfect gift, can be worth the angst of hours of searching. That perfect gift makes all the misses, simply minuses.

Donate Elite

It's the desire at Haute-Lifestyle.com to keep journalism free. Running a business, however, dictates what is now a common dilemma; a paywall, subscription or donation. Thank you for your donation.