Where are They Now? Word of Life Cult Members

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WHERE ARE THEY NOW? [As of February 7, 2020]

Grace Leonard turns 20 years old this month. After the cult imploded, she finally got her wish to attend public school, from which she eventually graduated. Grace was recently seen visiting her sister, Sarah Ferguson, at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility. She brought Sarah’s two youngest children to the visit.

Seth* Wright is reported to be MIA in the community. However, he visits Pastor Tiffanie Irwin so regularly in prison that the prison staff knows him by name.

Chris Leonard went into foster care, graduated from Rome Free Academy, and attended college at SUNY Oswego. He is 21 years old.

Kathleen* Morey (defendant Linda Morey’s daughter) went to college (cult members had not been allowed to attend college).

Linda Morey’s husband retired from his job as a parole officer.

Judy Parry, the cult’s oldest member, and one of the most loyal, died last summer.

Jerry Irwin is still dead. Attempts to resurrect him have thus far failed.

The Wrights: In the end, WLCC was made up of three families: the Irwins, the Leonards, and the Wrights (and a handful of members unrelated to anyone else). Some of those members remained loyal to the Irwins through their sentencing and imprisonment. Sources say the Wright siblings, forced apart for decades by the Irwins (even though some lived next door to each other), have recently reunited.

Sarah: I was told by one of Sarah’s close family members that Sarah is no longer talking to Tiffanie Irwin in prison, because Tiffanie won’t tell her what went on the night Luke was killed, after Sarah fell asleep. This indicates that Sarah has deluded herself into thinking someone did something to Luke beyond the out-of-control flogging she delivered him, and that whatever else (supposedly) happened is what ultimately killed him. Last fall, the 37-year-old lost her appeal. She will not be released, earliest, until she is 54 years old.

Traci Irwin lives in the Buffalo area and is remarried. Her new name is Traci Tlustos. On a social media page, she refers to her new husband as the “love of [her] life.” Apparently Jerry wasn’t. Traci has/had been attending college full time, and in 2018 made the Dean’s List at Niagara County Community College. She is reportedly going to school to become a veterinarian (unconfirmed).

Daniel Irwin lives in the Buffalo area. He has a girlfriend, and she is on track for giving birth to his child out of wedlock. This is something that would’ve been unheard of in the cult.

Kristel Leonard and Helen Lehrer divorced their spouses, the result of arranged marriages, and married each other.

Rich Dibble (not a cult member – he’s the Anglican priest who deprogrammed Bruce) continues to visit Bruce in prison, and works on his family’s farm, High Hopes Acres.

Deborah Leonard celebrated her 64th birthday a free woman, having been released from prison last month. She is on parole supervision. None of Debi’s relatives took her in, though they have contact with her. She is reportedly living in a halfway house in Utica, and believes Without a Prayer is a book of lies. Someone mailed Debi a copy of the book to read while she was in prison. Her only comment to this individual was, “It’s a nice picture of Luke.” Debi is in total denial of her actions that resulted in her son’s death. She has not visited her husband in prison, nor will she communicate with him, presumably because he has disowned the cult and has contact with his daughter, Kristel (who is not Debi’s biological daughter).

Bruce Leonard turns 70 this year. He is the only cult member charged in Luke’s death who has been fully deprogrammed, accepts responsibility for his actions, and denounces the cult. He will be in prison four more years.

Pastor Tiffanie Irwin, 34, will be released from prison in six more years.

David Morey, 30, will be freed from prison this month, after serving his full sentence. He will be on parole for three years.

Linda Morey, 58, will be released from prison this month, after serving her full sentence at Albion, a women’s prison northwest of Rochester. She will be on parole for three years.

Joseph Irwin, 26, is serving his time in Attica, a maximum security prison, one of the most brutal in the nation. He will be out in two-and-a-half years.

The Word of Life building was sold last year.

In October of last year, I participated in the burning Tiffanie’s pulpit, and other items of Irwin mind torture that had been in the building. Following the publicized bonfire, someone destroyed Luke’s memorial that relatives and community members put together at the head of the Word of Life building driveway. After public community outrage over it, and calls for an arrest in the crime, someone returned all of the items, dumping them across the fence, in a white trash bag.

Ezekiel*, the youngest Leonard child, is 16 years old.

Jayden* (pseudonym for Debi’s oldest son) has custody of Grace, Ezekiel*, and Sarah’s third child (Noah*).

Sarah’s two oldest children (Gabriel*, Ada*) are living with their biological father. Sarah’s youngest child (Ivy*) is with the child’s paternal grandmother.

Rick Wright’s family held a garage sale at their Clayville home in the fall of 2018. Someone tipped me off that they’d recognized items from the cult at the sale. I went to the sale (unbeknownst to them) and purchased some of those items, including a coffee mug that I later discovered had belonged to Tiffanie. As I was writing the book and drinking from my new mug, I was surprised to see a picture of my mug in a police search warant photo.

[At top is the police photo on my computer monitor. Below is the mug on my desk.]

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My Visit with Bruce Leonard

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*SPOILERS*

This could be a three-word blog: I like Bruce.

I visited Bruce Leonard at Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora in June of 2019. He seemed no different than any other person you’d meet (except that his broken eyeglasses were cobbled together with a twisted bread tie). He laughed. He cried. I’m not being cliché. He was funny, serious, smart, and engaging. And why would Bruce’s normalcy be notable? Because if you read my book, Without a Prayer, he clearly hadn’t been. He’d been under the control of Irwin family members, heads of the Word of Life Christian Church (WLCC).

By the time I’d received my first letter from Bruce (parts are included in the book), it was clear WLCC had lost most of its grip. Bruce had written me in coherent, complete sentences, as opposed to the curbed communication I’d witnessed (through texts, audio, and emails contained in the police files) while he’d been under the spell of the Word of Life cult.

When Bruce had first landed in jail, charged with murdering his teenage son Lucas Leonard, an Anglican priest had begun visiting him and offering emotional support. Slowly, and cautiously, Rich Dibble was able to deprogram Bruce, and bring him to see that he’d been a victim to a degree. I say “to a degree” because Bruce will tell you, without qualifiers, that he is responsible for his own actions. And that’s more than any of the other eight defendants in this case. Bruce is the only one who owned up to his role, and expressed deep sorrow and regret. When he’d first written me, he would not use the “c” word: cult. He would only go so far as to say he’d come to believe the Irwins exerted “undue influence” over the group.

Author Susan Ashline outside of Clinton Correctional Facility in Dannemora, New York. June 2019.

Bruce’s daughter Kristel decided to go with me to the prison, as did Rich Dibble. Visits last six hours, but the lazy guards made us wait so long to be processed (and then tried to bar me because of my shoes, until I told them to point out in the handbook a policy that didn’t exist), that by the time we got to see Bruce, we had only two hours with him.

After that unnecessary wait, I was starving and went to get some crappy food out of the prison vending machine. When I returned to our table, Bruce was seated and looking serious with arms on the table, clasped hands, and his broken, bread-tie glasses. “I’ve got questions.” He narrowed his eyes at me.

I had this stupid grin that I sometimes wear at inappropriate times, and it was on my face as I sat opposite him. “Bruce,” I said, still dumb-grinning. “You’re so  . . . business-like. So serious.”

“Well,” he said, a little looser, but readjusted his interlocking fingers, “it is business. I see it more as a summit. That’s what this is.”

From that, as I unwrapped my steaming microwaved sandwich designed to not get stale for 16 years, I asked “How was your day, Bruce?”

It was awful, he said. He hadn’t slept the night before, because he was nervous about our . . . summit. And then he broke into casual talk and never pulled from the list of questions he’d spent all night ruminating over. But he did inform me that he would be making a decision as to whether I was friend or foe.

I wanted to make sure his questions got answered. In one of his letters to me, it was clear he needed another side presented to him. The book had not yet been released, so he hadn’t read it. But Kristel had read the advanced copy. She’d also seen evidence from the investigation files. I was glad she and Rich accompanied me, because it helped Bruce accept the things I told him. [Bruce gave me permission to share our conversation.]

I revealed information about the Irwins and WLCC; for example, that the Irwin boys had an arsenal and had built an underground firing range. Bruce listened intently. He did not get defensive. He accepted it as true, but couldn’t understand how he missed a shooting range under the building. Kristel explained to him the exact location.

I hesitatingly told him that while he believed the Irwins loved his family, by their actions, the Irwins hated the Leonards. I told him what the Irwins had been saying about the Leonards behind their backs. I revealed other key points in the book, and he was surprised, to say the least.

Bruce had written me complaining about the investigation. For instance, he said much was made of the bullet casing that police pulled from his pocket. Bruce told me he’d found it, thought it was cool, and put it in his pocket. He was known for the interesting finds he kept in his pockets. But I told him police thought his son may’ve been shot, and because Bruce was uncooperative, it raised their suspicions. I told him police had no idea what had occurred and were doing their jobs trying to find a boy’s killer. Of course he would be a suspect. The bullet could be evidence. He understood.

During our visit, there were several minutes absent talking, just crying. Bruce broke down at the first mention of Luke’s name.

He talked about his wife and his wishes for her to remain in his life and marriage. He also hopes she’s reached an understanding of the control WLCC had over their lives. He said he was going to write her, and try to open the door to communication about that, and see how far she’s come.

Sadly, Rich, Kristel and I knew that Debi Leonard had not evolved away from the cult at all. But none of us told Bruce. I hoped his communication with her would open her eyes to what had been going on in that hellish place. But the odds are against it, because Debi is doing time in the same prison as her daughter Sarah Ferguson and Pastor Tiffanie Irwin.

When the visit was over, and we all stood to say good-bye, Bruce smiled and said to me, “I’m going to say . . . friend.”

UPDATE:

Right after the visit, after he’d had a chance to process the wealth of shocking information dumped on him, Bruce expressed anger that he’d been deceived all these years. He felt that made Luke’s death all the more egregious. In the summer of 2019, Bruce read Without a Prayer.  Rich had mailed it to him. It took Bruce many months to send me his thoughts in writing. He said he felt the book was mostly accurate as far as the details that involved him. But as far as the beating scene—the one scene that needed to be pieced together based on numerous accounts—he felt I attributed to him a more violent role than what reflected his actual participation. That really bothered him. He said he felt I did a good job with the book overall, and wished me success. He thanked me for the kind words about his children.

And he said the “c” word fit.

 

[NOTE: Each of the nine defendants were given the opportunity to contribute their thoughts to the book. All but Bruce declined to respond.]

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