Exclusive Look Inside Deadly Word of Life Cult


In 2015, Lucas Leonard, 19, died after being beaten by members of an Upstate New York cult, the Word of Life Christian Church. Nine individuals were convicted in connection with the crime, including Luke’s mother, father, and sister. The story is told in my book, Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult

The following are police photos from a search of the Word of Life property after Luke was taken to the hospital dead. 

Word of Life building in Chadwicks, NY. 
The “big sanctuary,” where Luke succumbed to his injuries, inside the Word of Life building.
The “small sanctuary,” where a gang of angry cult members beat brothers Christopher and Lucas Leonard, resulting in Luke’s death. 
The Irwin brothers had a fascination with weapons and war.
The Irwins had, at times, more than 100 animals inside the building. They ran a puppy mill, sold exotic birds, and kept pets of their own. 
Police discovered the Irwins had built an underground shooting range beneath the Word of Life building, where they had been firing high powered guns.
Cult members had built the Irwins a pricey apartment on the third floor of the Word of Life building.
Interior of the Word of Life building.

Where are They Now? Word of Life Cult Members


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. 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.]


Pictures of Lucas Leonard


In my book, Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult, why isn’t there more about Luke? The storyline is of a boy raised in isolation, taught to shun society. I wish there were legions of individuals wanting to share their memories and photos of Luke, but being that he lived all but hidden from the world—they don’t exist.

To care about someone, we need to know what that person is like. Digging up information about Luke was one of my biggest challenges in writing Without a Prayer.

Below are some photos of Luke (and his family) that were not in the book. Sadly, there are a few other pictures of Luke that really capture the flavor of who he was, but the individuals who took them slapped my hand for even asking permission to publish them. I don’t understand why. But please enjoy these, and get to know Luke.

[*Thank you to Kristel Leonard for providing these photos, and video.]

Luke was a daredevil. Here he is doing a flip off the roof of the family’s Clayville home.

Luke, Chris, Grace.

Luke (youngest brother in front of him), Grace, and Chris (blue sweatshirt).

Baby Luke.









Luke, at 17, won a sidewalk chalk competition. He loved drawing.

Baby Luke.

Baby Luke.








Luke with his oldest sister, Kristel.

Bruce Leonard with Luke.

Baby Luke being held by a relative. His sister Sarah Ferguson is behind him. Clockwise, Bruce Leonard is next to Sarah, then Bruce’s brother Jason.








Luke made this birthday card for his oldest sister, Kristel.

The center spread of the birthday card that Luke made for his sister Kristel.

A little Luke being held by a relative. His sister Sarah Ferguson is next to him (r).


Baby Luke with sister Sarah Ferguson.








Bruce Leonard entertaining out-of-town guests on the Leonard family farm in Richfield Springs, NY.

Bruce Leonard on the family farm (r) with his brother Jason, and their mother.

Bruce Leonard on the Leonard family farm in Richfield Springs, NY.

Baby Luke with sister Sarah Ferguson.

A younger Bruce Leonard tapping a maple tree.

Ezekiel*, Grace, Luke’s cousin, Luke, Chris.


Contents of Cult Go KABOOM!


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