Ex-member: Church at center of murder probe was "complete hell"

Nathan Ames is opening up about the 13 years he spent at the secretive Word of Life Christian Church in New Hartford, New York
Nathan Ames is opening up about the 13 years ... 03:13

The "World of Life Christian Church" is now at the center of a murder investigation after two brothers were beaten there last month during what police describe as a so-called "counseling session."

Police in central New York say two brothers w... 03:05

The evangelical congregation has no affiliation with or oversight by any larger church organization.

A former member of the church - who also attended school with the victims - is opening up about the 13 years he spent there, reports CBS News correspondent Don Dahler.

"I went there around the time I was born 'til I was about 13," said Nathan Ames, who attended school with his three brothers inside the church, which occupies a converted high school building. He and his family attended the World of Life in New Hartford, New York until 2002.

Last month, police say six current church members viciously beat two teenage brothers with electrical cables for more than ten hours inside the sanctuary. Nineteen-year-old Lucas Leonard died. His 17-year-old brother Christopher was seriously injured. The boys' parents and sister were among those charged with assault, along with other church members. Investigators believe the brothers wanted to leave the church.

Ames says problems at World of Life began when the late founder, Pastor Jerry Irwin, and his family began to exert total control over their congregation and fear that if people left the church, they would no longer be "under God's will - then you can go to hell."

Nathan Ames CBS News

He says adults, including the aunt he lived with for a short time, were instructed to discipline their children if they misbehaved or did poorly on tests by whipping them.

"The year and a half I lived there, I went through complete hell," Ames said. "When I didn't pass a test or when I didn't get my homework done on time. Daily."

Ames equated the church to a cult.

"See, I was young and I thought that was normal. It took me many, many years to get out of that mindset," he said. When he was 13, his family was kicked out of the church. The Leonard boys, he said, were not so fortunate.

As for the victims' parents allegedly taking part in the beatings, Ames said it was all part of the church culture.

"They did whatever was told to them," Ames said. "These are people who got misled ... and it went too far."

CBS News was unable to reach the church for comment. Nathan Ames has also been interviewed by detectives.

A grand jury will decide whether to indict the six members later this month on charges including murder and gang assault.