FORT WAYNE, Ind. (Jan. 20, 2016)– More than three years after being arrested at his southwest side mobile home, Bob Leonard Jr. is finally set to go on trial for his alleged role in the Richmond Hill explosion.
Leonard faces 53 counts, including murder, for the natural gas explosion that destroyed the home of Monserrate Shirley and killed neighbors Jennifer and Dion Longworth.
More than 80 homes were destroyed or damage at a loss in excess of $4 million in what prosecutors call a murderous insurance fraud plot.
Leonard’s trial was moved to Allen Superior Court in Fort Wayne due to extensive pre-trial publicity and the inability to seat jurors in Indianapolis who did not have a personal memory or connection to the case.
Twelve jurors and six alternates were chosen in Judge Frances Gull’s courtroom Tuesday, at which time Leonard’s attorneys gave indications of their client’s defense.
Prosecutors allege Leonard joined his half-brother Mark Leonard in planning the explosion at Shirley’s home on Fieldfare Way. They say he refined and researched the plot and entered the house on November 10, 2012, to set a microwave oven timer that set off the blast in an attempt to receive a $300,000 home insurance payoff.
“I don’t know the woman,” Leonard told FOX59 during a recorded phone interview from inside the Marion County Jail. “Why would I risk anything to try to get her out of debt for a woman I have never met?”
Leonard has made several phone calls to FOX59, and granted one personal interview inside the jail in the week before his trial.
Those comments are likely to be the last of Leonard’s accounts that will be heard outside the courtroom.
Before jury selection Tuesday, Defense Attorney Mark Inman asked reporters about the arrangements they made to interview Leonard, presumably against his lawyers’ wishes.
Minutes later, Judge Gull convened a closed door hearing involving the attorneys and prosecutors.
While the topic of the hearing was not disclosed, during the latter stages of jury selection, Leonard indicated that he had been prohibited from making any more phone calls to reporters.
During a previous interview, Leonard said he would insist on taking the stand in his own defense, “because I’m innocent…because there are things that the State’s trying to suppress in this case that shows that I’m innocent.”
Leonard was turned down by Judge Gull in his attempt to fire his attorneys for what he indicated was a lack of a vigorous defense, including their refusal to call expert witnesses to counter the State’s case.
“We’re aware that he has been talking and we’re aware of what he’s saying and we’ll be prepared if he testifies,” said Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson.
Leonard’s attorneys told prospective jurors that evidence of DNA at a crime scene does not prove the timing of a defendant’s presence at that location and that witnesses for the prosecution may have their own agendas in testifying.
Forensic investigators found Leonard’s DNA on the door to Shirley’s house and the homeowner is set to take the stand against the alleged triggerman.
Leonard said Shirley’s agreement with prosecutors, to plead guilty to a pair of conspiracy counts, would result in a reduced sentence on appeal.
Robinson is confident the Fort Wayne jurors will see through the Leonard defense arguments.
“What we have stressed, and what the jurors understand is, the trial is an accumulation of evidence,” said Robinson. “Its not about any single thing, and if they evaluate the DNA and other evidence, if they evaluate the testimony of each witness in light of the entire trial, then I’m confident that we’ll get a fair jury.”
Preliminary instructions, including the reading of the charges, begins at 8:30 a.m. Thursday followed by opening statements and the first witnesses to include 911 dispatchers, firefighters who responded to the explosion and Richmond Hill neighbors.
The trial is expected to last six weeks with 162 potential witnesses for the State listed.