FORT WAYNE, Ind. (Jan. 21, 2016) – Jurors in the trial of Bob Leonard Jr. heard fire dispatch tapes of the first minutes after the explosion that rocked the south side of Indianapolis on Nov. 10, 2012, killing two neighbors and putting in motion the most complex murder investigation in state history.
Leonard is accused of setting off that blast in a failed insurance fraud scheme that succeeded only in destroying or damaging more than 80 homes leading to more than $4 million in losses, the deaths of a young married couple and the ensnaring of five people in a poorly hatched conspiracy.
In opening statements, Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson told jurors in an Allen County courtroom that the late night explosion was proceeded by “one of those days that makes us forget about the upcoming winter…it was unseasonably warm as neighbors enjoyed the day.”
Robinson, as she did during the trial of lead conspirator Mark Leonard last summer in South Bend, painted a picture of a placid neighborhood where children and dogs took to the streets as homeowners tidied up their yards in anticipation of colder weather.
Shortly after 11 p.m., as many residents watched the Notre Dame/Boston College football game, there was an explosion that some firefighters and neighbors mistook to be a plane crash or even a bomb.
Robinson said, in a way, it was.
“This was not an accident…this was not a gas leak,” she said. “It was an intentionally set explosion.”
Robinson told the jury it will hear from more than 150 witnesses, many of them with technical expertise to prove during the investigation that “every avenue was explored.”
During the trial of Mark Leonard in St. Joseph County, where the case was moved due to extensive pre-trial publicity and the difficulty of securing a jury without personal knowledge of the tragedy, prosecutors proved that natural gas was intentionally leaked into the home of Monserrate Shirley and detonated.
Bob Leonard is accused of setting the timer on a microwave oven that triggered the blast.
“The conspiracy counts hold a lot of this together,” said Robinson after jurors heard the 51 murder, arson and conspiracy charges against Leonard read by Judge Frances Gull.
While the prosecution utilized its entire 30-minute limit to lay out its case to the jury, Defense Attorney Ted Minch only used a third of his allotted time and then played his strategy close to the vest, not directly attacking the State’s case.
“To characterize this as a warzone probably doesn’t do it justice,” said Minch, alluding to the nightmare in which residents described flaming debris falling from the sky.
Minch referred to what he called the “strict timetable” of the planning and explosion, indicating that Leonard’s version will be based on placing the defendant in another place and another time when key decisions and actions were undertaken to blow up the house at 8349 Fieldfare Way.
“Bob Leonard is not responsible for these acts,” said Minch, though he raised the names of accused co-conspirators Gary Thompson and Glenn Hults, as well as homeowner Monserrate Shirley, as culpable for the explosion.
The first witness for the prosecution was Lt. Russ Futrell of the Indianapolis Fire Department who recalled hearing and feeling the shockwave of the blast, looking out the back window of a nearby IFD fire station and spotting a fireball as it rose above the neighborhood less than a mile away.
Futrell was in charge of the first IFD apparatus to arrive at the scene, where Robinson said some firefighters were stumped to believe that a house ever stood.
Jurors then heard tapes of the first confused moments of the response as crews navigated darkened and debris field streets in search of ground zero.
The prosecution also played an audio tape of a security system dispatcher who had spoken with neighbor Dion Longworth who was trapped in the basement of his home next door at 8355 Fieldfare Way after the explosion.
Jennifer Longworth died in an upstairs bedroom from the blunt force trauma of the blast. Firefighters struggled unsuccessfully to rescue her husband before flames drove them back.
Bob Leonard’s attorneys sat in during the summer 2015 trial of Mark Leonard and have a working knowledge of the State’s case, though Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said there are differences in the evidence arrayed against each brother.
“Different role, different circumstances, and so the evidence will just have to play out and, again, there is absolutely no slam dunk in putting together a trial of six weeks, 150 witnesses, thousands of exhibits,” Curry said.
“Certainly where any circumstance where the defense counsel has an opportunity to see a road map, that is probably helpful to them, but in this case, it’s different role, different circumstances, there was some evidence that was presented in South Bend that will not be presented here. Likewise there will be some evidence that was not heard in the South Bend trial.”
Mark Leonard was convicted and sentenced to life without parole, a fate that awaits his half-brother if the Fort Wayne jury follows the findings of the South Bend panel.
Shirley has negotiated a plea agreement with prosecutors to be sentenced on a pair of conspiracy charges while testifying against her co-defendants.
Curry said Thompson, alleged to have planned the blast with Mark Leonard and of accompanying Bob Leonard the day of the explosion, will not be offered a similar agreement to testify during this trial, but may reach a deal before his own case set to be heard later this year.