Six church leaders and parishioners face charges including manslaughter and assault for a brutal beating in the sanctuary last Sunday that left Lucas Leonard, 19, dead and his brother Christopher, 17, hospitalised.
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 both face assault charges.
Police say the beatings arose out of a “counselling session” that may have been related to Lucas Leonard wanting to leave the church.
Chadwick Handville, a massage therapist in Phoenix, Arizona, left the Word of Life Christian Church in June 2000 after 10 years that included a stint as a worship leader and trustee.
“When I first arrived, it was warm and welcoming. It was encouraging. It was helpful,” she said. Things went downhill after founder Jerry Irwin returned from some time away and reclaimed his position as pastor, Ms Handville said.
“What was off the wall was his attitude toward others,” she 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.
“He did have good points,” Ms Handville said. “Through him I was able to memorise 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.”
She said many current and former church members are afraid to talk publicly about the church for fear of recrimination.
Since Irwin’s fatal stroke several years ago, his wife Traci and their children Tiffanie, Daniel, and Joseph have been in charge.
The New York Times reported that Daniel Irwin told investigators his sister Tiffanie, a Word of Life pastor, told the congregation some members were practicing witchcraft. It reported that Irwin said Lucas Leonard was one of them and was going to make a voodoo doll of a church leader.