SOUTH BEND, Ind. (June 30, 2015) – The sister of lead Richmond Hill suspect Mark Leonard told a South Bend jury that her brother texted her that he won $250,000 gambling the night of the fatal Richmond Hill explosion and was in a mood to celebrate.
“He was at the casino and he had won a large amount of money and wanted to know if he could send a limo to get my boyfriend and me to come hang out with him,” Durham recalled the message.
Durham said that Leonard told her that he might be flying out to Las Vegas with a doctor.
Defense attorneys argued that there was no proof of the message since Durham said her cell phone was destroyed after she was questioned by investigators.
Durham’s appearance followed testimony by a Hollywood Casino disc jockey, Travis Bell, that he met Leonard and Monserrate Shirley, the owner of the home that blew up that night, as the defendant requested an announcement in a nightclub that the couple was celebrating its anniversary.
Earlier, outside the presence of the jury, Judge John Marnocha ruled that he would allow Durham to testify about the text message because, “it is relevant to Mr. Leonard’s state of mind regarding a large amount of money.”
Investigators determined Leonard and Shirley were at the Lawrenceburg casino on November 10, 2012, awaiting word of the success of their insurance fraud plot. A phone call from a frantic neighbor summoned the couple back to Indianapolis where they were spotted by a FOX9 News camera arriving at Mary Bryan Elementary School with other evacuated residents several hours after the explosion.
Durham admitted that she was testifying reluctantly as her brother watched from the Defense table.
At the time of the blast, Durham was at a Southport Road restaurant approximately one mile from 8349 Fieldfare Way when she heard the explosion and, “it felt like a big truck hit the building. All the windows bowed. People thought it was the end of the world. There was white stuff falling out of the sky. It was awful.”
Durham said she was questioned less than two days after the blast and told investigators about her brother’s text message.
During an earlier visit to the home Leonard shared with Shirley, Durham said she spotted an undrivable Cadillac in the garage and a Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Investigators claim Leonard and Shirley left the vehicles behind to be destroyed by the explosion in furtherance of the $300,000 insurance fraud scheme.
Durham was asked by Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson to describe the relationship between Leonard and Shirley, which she testified was not a particularly loving one on her brother’s behalf, however, Shirley appeared to be, “overly in love with him.”
Shirley claims she was intimidated into participating with Leonard’s plot to destroy her house in a natural gas explosion and file a fraudulent home insurance claim.
Leonard faces more than 50 charges, including arson, conspiracy, murder and insurance fraud.
Shirley pleaded guilty to lesser charges in hopes of receiving a reduced sentence for her role.
Prosecutors anticipate her testimony Wednesday will give jurors an inside view of the conspiracy.
Durham was followed to the witness stand by Indiana Gaming Commission investigators who viewed surveillance videos to confirm the couple’s presence at Hollywood at the Roof, a bar inside the casino.
Agent Bret Bastable said he spotted Leonard gambling and losing $100 at a blackjack table and Shirley spending $200 playing slot machines for a total of three-and-a-half minutes during their 12-hour long stay on the casino floor.
Deputy Prosecutor Mark Hollingsworth noted Leonard did not win the $250,000 his sister said he claimed.
Bastable said the surveillance tape shows Shirley receiving a phone call at 11:45 p.m.
During cross examination, Defense Attorney David Shircliff misidentified a record of Leonard’s gambling on October 9, 2012, one month before the explosion, as the Friday night before the blast before recognizing his mistake and concluding his questioning of Bastable.
When Judge Marnocha asked Hollingsworth if he had any more questions for Bastable, the deputy prosecutor elicited chuckles from the courtroom when he responded, “I don’t know what I would redirect on that.”
David John, the Hollywood Casino surveillance system manager, showed jurors a DVD video of Leonard and Shirley entering the gaming site at 12:37 p.m. on the afternoon of the blast, just a couple hours before prosecutors theorize Leonard’s half-brother, Bob Leonard, Jr., and Gary Thompson, were arriving on Fieldfare Way in the suspect’s white van and entering his girlfriend’s home to begin tampering with natural gas safety valves to set the scene for the fatal explosion.
During the playing of the 30-minute long edited surveillance video, Leonard sat in the darkened courtroom, silently watching proof of his presence at the casino the afternoon of the blast as prosecutors claim he was contemplating the big payoff of which he bragged to his sister later that night.
John pointed out the couple’s stroll through the casino and Leonard’s arrival at a blackjack table where he lost $100 gambling.
“The male is sitting here. The female is sitting here,” said John, using a laser pointer to indicate the positions of Leonard and Shirley at the gaming table. “She’s just sitting there watching.”
John also indicated for jurors video footage of Shirley, on her cell phone at 11:45 p.m., walking through the casino at the time prosecutors said she was receiving word from a neighbor about the tragedy back home.
The jurors then saw video of Leonard and Shirley leaving the casino at 11:56 p.m., less than two hours before the couple was spotted by FOX59 News at Mary Bryan Elementary School, accompanied by a Marion County Sheriff’s deputy who first encountered them at a Richmond Hill neighborhood roadblock.
Shirley told FOX59 News in an on-camera interview two days after the explosion that when she identified herself to the deputy, she was taken aside and told that neighbors Jennifer and Dion Longworth had died in the fire and blast that began at her house.
Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry monitored the morning session from the St. Joseph Superior Court gallery, as did Shirley’s attorneys James Voyles and Jennifer Lukemeyer.
Derrick Collins, the hotel manager of the Hollywood Casino, said Leonard made hotel reservations on three consecutive weekends.
The State is trying to prove that Leonard and Shirley stayed at the Casino during several unsuccessful attempts to blow up Shirley’s home.
During those three hotel stays in Lawrenceburg, the couple also boarded their pet cat named Snowball.
The prosecution argues that Leonard and Shirley conspired to blow up their home as they protected their cat in a shelter and returned to the casino during the explosion attempts.
The cat was left with three different kennel companies during each alleged attempt.
The Richmond Hill home eventually exploded on November 10, 2012.
Prosecutors then shifted gears to demonstrate the dire financial situation Shirley and Leonard were in.
Mary Rose-Weston was hired by Shirley to sell the home in March 2011.
Mortage payments were consistently behind, as much as three months late, but they were catching up at the time of the incident.
An offer was received on the home but Shirley decided to take the home off of the market.
Alan Strange, an auditor for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives recreates financial conditions in criminal investigations and was called to the stand Tuesday.
He detailed the desperate finances of the couple.
According to Strange, Shirley and Leonard would take cash advances on their credit line and in some cases use that money to gamble.
He described their living condition as, “paycheck to paycheck.”
Shirley is expected to take the stand on Wednesday.