Word of Life: Former member reveals life in the church where a teen was beaten to death

A former member of a church where a teenager was beaten to death has spoken out about the mental abuse members suffered in what he described as a "cult".

On October 11 last year, Lucas Leonard,19, was killed during a "counseling session" at the Word of Life Christian Church in upstate New York. He and his brother were beaten with electrical cords by other church members, allegedly including their half-sister and father.

Nathan Ames, a former member, told People he was not surprised that Lucas and his 17-year-old brother Christopher were beaten for trying to leave the congregation.

"There were a lot of good things that had been going on at the church, but it slowly and increasingly got controlling," Ames, 26, told People.

"People were being mentally abused over time and they'd become sheltered from the outside world as a result. It got to the point where, if you watched television, you shut the commercials off because you didn't want any external influences."

The church was founded by Jerry Irwin and after his death his family took over the running of the church, which was the point it became much more restrictive, according to Ames.

"We were told we couldn't talk to anybody. You'd go to church, but you couldn't talk to anyone. They'd use manipulation and mind games to control people," he said.

"Obviously, people who didn't accept the Irwins and what they were professing were ostracised from the pulpit."

The beating which left Lucas dead and Christopher in hospital in need of surgery to repair injuries to his leg, arm, abdomen and genitals was allegedly conducted by nine church members.

The grand jury's indictment charged the brothers' father, Bruce Leonard, 65, with 13 criminal counts including second-degree murder, kidnapping and gang assault.

Charges of second-degree murder, kidnapping and gang assault were also brought against church pastor Tiffanie Irwin, 29; Traci Irwin, David Morey, 26, Linda Morey, 54, and Joseph Irwin, 26, who all attended the church; and Sarah Ferguson, 33, the half-sister of Lucas and Christopher, the court document showed.

Ames described the church as a cult, because "normal churches are not like this.

"This is not what a real church is. It's sad that people see this and think that's what church is. I think it's a cult simply because mind control was used, and because the Irwins made claims that they were the only way to heaven. People believed that."

Ames said his family left soon after Jerry Irwin's death 13 years ago.

"It got to a point where you couldn't answer your phone," he said.

"You'd get a call from someone, but before you could pick up the call, you'd give to call the Irwins and get permission to talk to that person. This kind of control didn't happen overnight, but was the byproduct of slow indoctrination."

The Irwins also said that salvation was through them alone: "We were told people would be going to hell if they were not part of the church," Ames said.

"For years after I left, I was worried I was going to go to hell. I don't know why we believed the Irwins were the only way to get to heaven, but they would tell us they could see into our homes and that they were incapable of doing wrong or sinning."

Ames said that, although he no longer goes to the church, it has "affected me a lot. It was all I knew and when we finally got out, I was held back a year in school and I was basically socially behind. The Irwins made me feel like a failure. And now, [Christopher] will be scarred for life. That's something I wouldn't wish on anybody. It makes me sick."