On the anniversary of Lucas Leonard’s death, under a near-constant drizzle, a small group of us warmed ourselves by a blaze generated by the products of a killing cult. Luke had died four years earlier, after a sustained beating by Word of Life Christian Church members, including his own family. He was only 19.
“It was . . . the most un-Christian thing I have ever heard of.” Investigator Dennis Dougherty to Linda Morey, one of nine defendants convicted in Luke’s death.
Pastor Tiffanie Irwin never laid a hand on the teen, yet managed to orchestrate the whole thing through manipulation and decades of abuse at the hands of her and her family, eroding the psyches of every member in the Irwins’ pseudo congregation.
“What do you think you’re doing? I’m serious. What does anybody think they’re doing? Because if you think you’re serving God, it’s not the way it looks.” Pastor Tiffanie Irwin, to the Word of Life congregation on November 2, 2014
I’d planned on blogging about this case throughout the course of writing my book, Without a Prayer, but the action felt disingenuous. Even now, I struggle to put words to a cruel and unforgiving story that leaves one wordless. And how callous it seems to express excitement at having my first book published, when the story only exists because an innocent teenager is dead. Many times, I’ve thought—I’d rather have Luke on earth than this book published.
A natural friendship evolved between Luke’s sister Kristel Leonard and me, after working an entire year on the book—six months researching and writing it; more months editing it. During the book release and promotional stage, it felt wrong for me to shed tears during interviews, when speaking personally about Luke. Kristel is also the daughter of Bruce Leonard, sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in killing his own son. I’ve thought—she deserves to cry; not me. I never knew Luke. I never lost him. I never lost my father to prison. I never lost my entire family due to horrific circumstances. Despite that I’m an emotional person, I‘ve fought against letting myself express my feelings, which were that Luke felt like my own son.
Writing this book started out as an assignment. It didn’t take long for it to become personal. In the thick of the book’s release, when I was promoting it like crazy, Helen sent me somewhat of a cleansing email, a rant of sorts, about Sarah Ferguson, Luke’s sister who is serving 25 years in prison for her primary role in causing his death. Helen wrote, “I know at this point you are probably over all this and want to move on.“
I was taken aback. “I can never be ‘over’ this,” I replied. “This story has had a profound impact on me. I don’t feel any desire to move on. In fact, it has never crossed my mind.”
Someone bought the former Word of Life cult building on Oneida Street in Chadwicks, NY (yeah—not a church; and the Irwins who ruled it are not Christians). The new owners walked me through the place around the time Kristel and her wife Helen (also a survivor of that cult) had told me they wanted to burn Irwin items like Pastor Tiffanie’s pulpit. A 29-year-old woman who looked more like a waif, Tiffanie is the one who oversaw Luke’s beating death—directed everyone inside that church, and maintained control while they were outside of it—and authorities believe Luke would be alive today, if not for her.
“How many months ago it was that God spoke to me something that shocked me then. He said, ‘There’s great wickedness in this place.’” Pastor Tiffanie Irwin, to the congregation on November 2, 2014.
I was figuring on other uses for the pulpit, until I saw it in that hell-hole and felt only a fraction of the anger that Kristel and Helen could be feeling. “Let’s burn it,” I said, fully on board.
The building’s new owner wanted to keep the event private. Kristel had invited few people, and it was somewhat last-minute. A long drive for me, I made use of the day. It started with Kristel and Helen accompanying me on a book signing at the Clayville library, a place where Luke spent a huge chunk of his life. His brother Christopher (who, at 17, survived the beating that fateful night) used to visit the Clayville library once a day. Now, the magnificent stained glass windows of Luke and Chris’ sanctuary are buckling. In a community where the poverty is extreme and ubiquitous, members of the Clayville Library Association know they have an unrealistic goal of raising $60,000 to restore the windows before they collapse.
State Police Investigators Todd Grant and Dennis Dougherty showed up. I had very much wanted to meet them, and Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara passed along that word to them. They are my heroes, along with McNamara and his team, and Brad Pietryka, who was with New Hartford Police at the time, and lead investigator on the case. But I hadn’t met Grant and Dougherty. I especially loved the way they handled loathsome Joe Irwin in the interview room, and Linda Morey, who wasn’t able to fool the investigators when she tried to play herself off as a timid, delicate creature.
After the book signing, I went to the Leonard family farm, where Bruce’s brother Jason let me fire his .50 cal sniper rifle.
In return, I gave him a plaque, with redneck words of wisdom, that I’d picked up for $1 at a yard sale and gift-wrapped in newspaper. Another Leonard kin gave me a jar of homemade jam.
Later, back at the cult building, the Leonard gals loaded the burn bin. First, the pulpit.
In went the church sign—the one that welcomed the community, but only for a short time before paranoid cult patriarch Jerry Irwin had it taken inside. No longer welcoming folks, he instead had them chased off the grounds.
And there were other implements of mind-torture that needed to be gone forever.
The Leonard gals lit a match.
On October 12, 2019, four years after Luke died under Tiffanie’s rule, her phony pulpit fittingly went kaboom.
The skies grayed and the rains came. And the healing began.
“Hi. This is Luke. I just want to say thank you, I don’t remember a time when I’ve been truly happy and peaceful. Last night was the happiest I’ve ever been, thank you so much! . . . God said, ‘It is done.’ To Luke Leonard! I’m not hindered now.” Luke Leonard, in an email on September 25, 2014