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.

Mother and Son Cult Members Exit Prison


Linda Morey and her son, David, will be freed from prison on Thursday, February 27. They are among nine members of the Word of Life Christian Church (WLCC) convicted in the 2015 beating death of one of its members, 19-year-old Lucas Leonard, the subject of my book, Without a Prayer.

Facing murder charges, the mother and son agreed to plead guilty to second degree assault against Luke and his brother Christopher, who survived the gang attack, in exchange for a sentence of five years in prison and three years on parole. This is ironic, since Linda will presumably move back in with her husband (David’s father), a former parole officer. At the time of the crime, Steven* [pseudonym] was a senior officer for the New York State Department of Corrections, earning a salary of $90,020 a year. Soon after Lucas was killed and his wife and son arrested, he retired. Steven was a member of the central New York cult early on, but dropped out after a couple of years. His daughter Kathleen*, who is three years older than David, remained a loyal Irwin follower until the very end, and was present the night Luke was killed. Kathleen was babysitting children in a nearby room, as Luke was being beaten. She was never charged in connection with the crime. David will most likely not be allowed to move in with his father, because paroled felons are not allowed to live in the same residence.

Linda Morey believed in physical correction and was known to be abusive. In this audio clip, Linda is heard participating in a “counseling session” of a cult member (there are two soundbites from the same counseling session, edited back-to-back).

Linda worked hard to gain the favor of Tiffanie Irwin, the young preacher who led WLCC, and other members of the Irwin family. She would spend up to eight hours a day on her hands and knees cleaning dog excrement in the cult, which ran a dog-breeding business. David Morey was a virtually silent young man, a follower, who became part of the Irwin clan’s inner circle because he palled around with the Irwin boys who were close to his age.

Luke’s beating by the gang of angry WLCC members turned deadly after Linda handed Luke’s parents a computer cord, encouraging them to whip Luke and Chris. And when Luke’s sister Sarah slashed a hole in his penis, causing blood to pour down his pant leg, Linda mocked the fatally wounded boy by saying, “Oh, little boy peed his pants. He ain’t so tough now.”

David’s role was to hold Luke back and push him up against the wall so he could be hit some more. 


During questioning by state police investigators, Linda tried to play herself off as a demure, sweet lady, but investigators didn’t buy it.

At her sentencing, she apologized not to the victim’s family, but to her own.

Linda Morey, 58, served her time at Albion Correctional Facility, a medium security prison west of Rochester. David, who turns 31 years old on March 20, was housed in Cayuga Correctional Facility, southwest of Syracuse. A source close to David says David learned a trade while in prison and will work hard to get a job, that he now has his head straight, is “a really good boy, needs some help and guidance.”

As a condition of their parole, the Moreys will not be allowed to associate with individuals with a criminal history. That means they cannot reunite with any of the former cult members who were also charged in this case, including the victim’s mother, Deborah Leonard, who was released from prison last month.



Cult Mom Gets Out of Prison

[*Please do not post threats against Deborah Leonard. I’ve seen scary stuff posted online in regard to her release. I understand expressing anger, but threats to her safety are not only disturbing and wrong, they’re illegal.]

Without a Prayer: The Death of Lucas Leonard and How One Church Became a Cult

[UPDATE: Thursday, January 16, 2020, Deborah Leonard is officially released]

Deborah Leonard has been in la-la land, likening prison to living in a college dorm, according to credible sources. Debi reportedly spent her time at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility on the prison dance team, exercising, and working in the graphics shop and law library. Last I knew, she was in denial of the facts surrounding the death of her son Lucas Leonard, a death in which she participated. I’ve been told she believes the reason Luke died from the beating while Christopher survived, is because of a misguided notion that Luke was a drug addict. Luke had been on pain medication for knee surgery. There is no evidence—or even reasonable speculation—he was a drug addict. But it is proven that Luke died from a prolonged, severe beating, coupled with the fact that no one provided him even basic medical care.

Debi was sentenced to five years in prison for her role in the death of Luke, 19, inside the Word of Life Christian Church (WLCC), a cult outside of Utica. In 2015, a gang of angry worshippers had brutally beaten Luke and his brother Chris, then 17, after hearing allegations they’d been molesting children. Nine members of the cult were convicted, including Luke’s mother, father, and sister Sarah Ferguson (who received 25 years for a manslaughter conviction after trial). Deborah is expected to be released from prison on January 16, 2020.


What are my thoughts on Debi?

In the end, Debi could not shake the cult mentality. That might have to do with the unfortunate circumstance of her being imprisoned with her daughter Sarah, and with Tiffanie Irwin, leader of the cult. All three of them got to sit around reaffirming each other’s claims they did nothing wrong. Debi has refused to acknowledge her role, accepts no responsibility, and has gone so far as to blame Luke for his own death. She had told investigators she believed Luke provoked the beating because he wanted them to kill him, likening it to “suicide by cop.”

While in county jail, Debi made statements to visitors that it was good Luke died when he did, because it gave him the chance to repent after being on a path to hell. Otherwise, she was cheerful, never mentioning Luke on the phone (for at least as long as the prosecution team monitored her calls). At sentencing, Debi apologized to her “church family”—the Irwins—for dragging them through the courts, and asked their forgiveness. But, in fact, the district attorney went forward with prosecuting the Irwins based on the presumption the Leonards would not have killed their son if the Irwins hadn’t abused, manipulated and controlled them for decades.

Debi also made this bizarre statement at her sentencing: “And to Chris and Luke, I have not hurt you physically, but I said some pretty horrible things to you both that I know hurt your hearts.” She conveniently ignored the part about how she participated in hitting and whipping her boys, and fell asleep to the sound of Luke crying as he lay dying.

While in prison, Debi concocted a story to a visitor that New York state officials forced a cremation of Luke’s body in order to destroy evidence of his supposed drug addiction. The truth is that Kristel Leonard, who is Debi’s step-daughter, led a meeting involving both sides of the family—several witnesses present—in which cremation was discussed and agreed upon. One of Debi’s blood relatives was assigned to be the liaison to Debi to share what they’d discussed. That person reported back that Debi was on board with cremation.

I respect—and forgive—people who admit to wrongdoing. I will cheer for their reformation. However, I’m not convinced Debi has had a moment where she has asked Luke to forgive her. I don’t think she’s grieved his death. Because last I knew, she had deceived herself into believing they all did the right thing that night, and that Luke got what he deserved.

Why did Debi get five years?

This wasn’t a cut and dried murder case. Oneida County District Attorney Scott McNamara would have to convince a grand jury that WLCC was a cult, in order to secure murder indictments against members of the Irwin family who ran it, despite that some of them never laid a hand on Luke that fateful night. This was no easy task. Early on, McNamara identified that Debi had been especially targeted by the Irwins for abuse. He also believed her to be one of the least culpable in Luke’s death, because Chris had told authorities her blows did not hurt. She’d been weakened by a series of heart attacks.

Debi’s cooperation with the prosecution was critical. McNamara made her an offer: plead guilty to assault charges (reduced from manslaughter) and be sentenced to five years in prison, plus five years parole, in exchange for testifying against her co-defendants. Though Debi did testify at grand jury, she refused to hold up her part of the bargain during Sarah’s trial.

In total, Debi served four years, three months behind bars (less than three years of it was in prison). She received credit for the time she was jailed while awaiting disposition of her case. Additionally, inmates given a sentence with a hard end date (in this case, five years) go into prison with “good time.” That means they automatically get a pre-determined amount of time shaved off each year of their sentence. It is very difficult to lose good time.

Where will Debi live upon release?

Debi and her husband Bruce still own the house in Clayville. Debi’s oldest son Jayden* has power of attorney over Debi and Bruce. Jayden has not had the house cleaned. It remains in the same squalid condition as when the Leonards were arrested a little more than four years ago. I would think it uninhabitable. New parolees are usually required to move in with someone, in a living situation approved by the parole officer. Additionally, the officer may bar Debi from driving. Unless she is excused from working because of poor health, the officer will require her to find employment. Debi would need to find a job within walking distance, or rely on someone to drive her. Because of that, she may end up living with Jayden. But Jayden was given custody of Debi’s two children, Grace and Ezekiel*, and one of Sarah’s children. I don’t know if there are protective orders that bar Debi from contact with her surviving children. Another possibility is that a sibling of Debi’s could take her in.

What will Debi’s life be like upon release?

Debi’s parole officer will not allow her to socialize with anyone with a criminal history. That means she will not be able to reconnect with Traci or Daniel Irwin, two of her co-defendants (they each served one year, five months in jail after pleading guilty to two counts of first degree unlawful imprisonment). The parole department will impose standard release conditions upon Debi, and her field officer can impose special conditions. She will probably be required to find employment. She will likely have a curfew, requiring her to remain in her approved residence during specific hours, subject to random checks by her parole officer. She likely won’t be allowed to drink, or allowed in establishments that serve alcohol (unless approved by her parole officer for situations such as work). She will not be able to leave her county of residence, without written permission of her parole officer.


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