This week, Bruce and Deborah Leonard were charged with allegedly beating their son to death inside the Word of Life Christian Church in Chadwicks, New York. According to neighbors, there was always something a little creepy about that church, even before the alleged murder.
Lucas Leonard, 19, was pronounced dead after his parents took him to a hospital Monday afternoon. Christopher Leonard, their 17-year-old younger son, was also allegedly beaten, and remains hospitalized and in serious condition. The Leonards were charged with manslaughter, and four other members of the congregation—Joseph Irwin, David Morey, Linda Morey, and Sarah Ferguson—were charged with assault.
Several news outlets have spoken with New Hartford residents about the eerie goings-on at Word of Life, which sits in a three-story former school building. Lisa Brown, whose parents live across the street, told the Utica Observer Dispatch that some residents believe the building houses a cult:
“When they first took over the building, they would post Mass schedules so people knew when there were services,” Brown said. “Now, it’s not like just anyone could go to church there…It’s kind of been the running joke that there’s a cult there.”
“There’s always been weird things going on,” said Julie Howard, who lives near the church on Oneida Street. “You always hear dogs, they’re breeding dogs. The cops have been called there before, they’re not allowed in the building, they can’t get in the building.
The cult thing over here has been going on for a while, I guess around 30 years. It’s their own religion everybody stays in their own religion. It’s like one big happy family of about 30 of them.”
Neighbors said Tuesday the church has come across as mysterious and suspicious for many years, though they’d never been inside. One woman said she most often only sees church members at night, sometimes at 3 a.m., and she hears chants emanating from the building.
She also said she sees kids of various ages do yard and building work, and rarely sees women. Men in the church wear what she described as “long, black trenchcoats” but said other members she saw wore “normal” clothing.
A June 2015 thread on Topix.com ambiguously warns readers to “stay far far away” from the church, and many responses left in the wake of the killing allege that Word of Life is a cult. Referring to evacuations that occurred while police raided the church, one user wrote:
i live across the street and was one of the homes evacuated last night. never saw anything there. they never came out, never saw them go in. very isolated.
UPDATE (2:09 p.m.): A representative of Word of Life Fellowship, a 75-year-old evangelical youth ministry based in Schroon Lake, NY, about 125 miles northeast of Chadwicks, told Gawker that the organization is not affiliated with Word of Life Christian Church in any way.