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Church where teen was beaten to death became place of fear, ex-members say

Bruce and Deborah Leonard enter court for their arraignment in New Hartford, N.Y. They are charged with manslaughter in the beating death of their 19-year-old son. Four others linked to their church also face charges.
(Mark DiOrio / Utica Observer-Dispatch)

Former members of the upstate New York church where one teen was beaten to death and his brother severely injured paint a picture of a once vibrant and joyous house of worship that had become a place of fear and intimidation under new leadership.

“When I first arrived, it was warm and welcoming. It was encouraging. It was helpful,” said Chadwick Handville, a massage therapist in Phoenix who left the Word of Life Christian Church in June 2000, after 10 years that included a stint as a worship leader and trustee. Things went downhill after founder Jerry Irwin returned from some time away and reclaimed his position as pastor, Handville said.

“What was off the wall was his attitude toward others,” Handville said. “It wasn’t happy. He accused every male of lusting after his wife.”

Handville said Irwin’s preaching was filled with personal attacks on parishioners, whom he forced to work long hours renovating the Irwin family’s apartment on the third floor of the former school building that houses the church in New Hartford.

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“He did have good points,” Handville said. “Through him I was able to memorize half the Bible. He taught me a lot. What he failed to teach me was how to use what I read, how to treat people.”

Handville said many current and former church members are afraid to talk publicly about the church for fear of recriminations.

In a letter to the Post-Standard of Syracuse, former congregant Nathan Ames said the church began as a fast-growing Pentecostal fellowship, but declined after Irwin reclaimed leadership. Ames described Irwin as controlling and intimidating.

Since Irwin’s fatal stroke several years ago, his wife, Traci, and their children — Tiffanie, Daniel and Joseph — have been in charge. Ames said they continued in the style of the founder.

Six church leaders and parishioners face charges including manslaughter and assault for a brutal beating in the sanctuary Oct. 11 that left 19-year-old Lucas Leonard dead and his 17-year-old brother, Christopher, hospitalized.

Church members Bruce and Deborah Leonard, parents of the victims, face the most serious charge of manslaughter. Deborah Leonard’s daughter, Sarah Ferguson, and Joseph Irwin face assault charges.

Police say the beatings arose out of a “counseling session” that may have been related to Lucas Leonard wanting to leave the church.

The roughly 30-year-old church has declined from about 40 members to around 20, New Hartford Police Chief Michael Inserra said. Members are devoted to their pastor and often “wait to be told what to do,” Inserra said.

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Traci and Tiffanie Irwin haven’t been charged and have not commented.

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David Bromley, professor of religious studies and director of the World Religions and Spirituality Project at Virginia Commonwealth University, said there are thousands of similar small, independent Christian churches around the country. They’re typically very conservative, following a strict fundamentalist theology with a literal interpretation of the Bible.

The trend toward independent, conservative churches coincides with a decline in membership in mainline Christian churches. “A lot are forming in reaction to the liberalization of mainline churches,” Bromley said.

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The theology of a congregation may lead to strong resistance to a member’s wish to leave the group, he said.

“If you get into a very conservative group where there is only one way, and God’s wrath is about to be unleashed on humanity and we’re the faithful remnant, then leaving the group is a very serious condition from the point of view of members,” Bromley said. “Essentially, if you leave you’re walking into Satan’s dominion and your soul is lost.”

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