SOUTH BEND, Ind. (June 21, 2015) — The first two weeks of Mark Leonard’s double murder trial for the 2012 Richmond Hill explosion have been devoted to personal stories of neighbors who related what it was like the night their world blew up and to laying the foundation for the fatal blast.
Now it’s time for the on-scene investigators to take center stage and detail the painstaking six-week-long probe that led to more than 50 counts of conspiracy, murder, arson and insurance fraud that ensnared the three lead suspects at Christmastime of that year and then led to the eventual arrests of two more men.
Leonard is accused of concocting the plan to level girlfriend Monserrate Shirley’s south side Indianapolis house in pursuit of a $300,000 home insurance settlement along with his half-brother Bob Leonard Jr.
The second Leonard faces trial in Fort Wayne next year while Shirley is slated to testify in early July, literally and figuratively pointing a finger at her former lover.
Jennifer and Dion Longworth lived next door to Shirley and died on the night of Nov. 10, 2012, when their house was engulfed in flames, and the homes of approximately 80 of their neighbors were damaged or destroyed by the blast, as loses totaled $4.4 million.
Week 2 testimony found officials from Citizens Energy Group telling a South Bend jury that an examination of utility bills determined that Shirley’s home consumed more than twice the amount of natural gas than her neighbors’ houses in late October and early November and that the explosion packed the wallop of more than three tons of TNT.
Jurors have seen evidence and heard testimony that indicated two vital natural gas safety valves or regulators were disabled to permit the introduction of an excessive amount of fuel into the house on that Saturday.
“You try not to make it too technical. You take difficult concepts and you break them down, repeat it, show it to them. Hopefully we did that,” Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson told reporters at the conclusion of court last Thursday. “Next week starts with crime lab recovery of evidence from the scene. We’re going to be discussing some of that evidence, showing it to the jury and then ending with origin and cause.
“We’re taking the science, we’re taking the arson or fire investigation, and now we’re moving toward the actual criminal investigation.
“We’ll finish origin and cause and then we’ll open up the actual criminal investigation explaining the lead detective’s role.”
An analyst from the Marion County Forensic Services Agency will testify Monday to be followed later in the week by the on-scene homicide and arson investigators.
This past week saw Leonard begin to visibly focus more on the proceedings.
While dozens of neighbors testified about the lives turned upside down by what his own attorneys admit was a “selfish and stupid” insurance fraud attempt, the defendant showed no emotion, his left hand rested alongside his face as he viewed the hundreds of photographs of damaged homes passed to his counsel.
When the evidence moved into the technical aspects of the case as experts testified about the alterations prosecutors accused Leonard of making to his then-girlfriend’s house, the accused man became more animated, sometimes smiling, sometimes taking notes, occasionally talking with members of his defense team.
“I don’t pay any attention to Mark Leonard. That’s not my focus. My focus is presenting this case to the jury,” said Robinson. “We present our own case. I don’t worry about what the defense has to do.”
Defense counsel Diane Black and David Shircliff typically do not address the media, though they often object to evidence and testimony presented by the State, including attempts to introduce audio tapes of calls for help, video demonstrations of explosions and recalculated gas findings by a key prosecution witness.
St. Joseph Superior Judge John Marnocha, who inherited the case when it was moved out of Marion County due to pretrial publicity and the perceived inability to find an unbiased jury, consistently rules in favor of the introduction of evidence, even if some rulings are held in abeyance until the issue is formerly introduced.
Some of those issues will be related to the appearance of Shirley whom Black tried to portray as a decisive and mechanically adept woman during the testimony of the co-conspirator’s ex-husband John Shirley.
Shirley may be moved to the St. Joseph County Jail as soon as next week in preparation for her appearance which is not scheduled until after the July 4 weekend.
The homeowner’s testimony was confirmed by a plea agreement negotiated by leading Indianapolis defense attorney James Voyles who contends his client was an easily intimidated and misled accomplice.
Shirley has pleaded guilty to reduced charges and will face a prison sentence that could reach into the 30-year range once her testimony against her co-defendants is complete.
Gary Thompson is accused of accompanying Bob Leonard, Jr., to Shirley’s house the day of the blast to disable the natural gas regulator and fireplace valve and set a delayed timer on a microwave oven to trigger the explosion.
Glenn Hults is accused of participating in the conspiracy during the planning stage and later by offering to secure personal items taken from Shirley’s house before the blast.
While the court is aware of the commitment it is requiring of the 12 jurors and five alternates to devote a significant part of their summer to sitting in a basement courtroom to listen to evidence of a tragedy that happened 140 miles away from their home community, Marnocha has endeavored to ease the stress of the jury’s assignment.
The judge referred to his experience as a guitarist while explaining a point of courtroom procedure to jurors while the prosecution has consistently struck a friendly tone as it presented evidence of the explosive double killing.
As the lead prosecutor, Robinson is sometimes pondering and professorial, letting testimony hang in the air for juror consideration, such as when one resident remarked that his damaged home bordered a childrens’ playground in the community.
Deputy Prosecutor Mark Hollingsworth often offered lighthearted remarks on the number of dog owners in the Richmond Hill community, a reference that paid off when one neighbor recalled that the remains of his family’s missing pet were discovered beneath the wreckage of his home days after the explosion.
Black and Shircliff, by the same token, have a more difficult task in humanizing their client while essentially left to the role of reactors to the State’s case during the first stage of the trial.
Before the testimony of Shirley, the Defense must overcome evidence that Leonard allegedly participated in a murder-for-hire scheme while locked up inside the Marion County Jail.
Investigators charge that Leonard, working through a jailhouse informant three months after his arrest, made two phone calls to a “hit man” in an attempt to kill a key witness against him.
Leonard didn’t know that “hit man” was actually an undercover federal agent and the calls were being recorded.
In an attempt to get the bad news out early, Black told jurors in her opening statement that her client had participated in the ill-advised scheme but while under the sway of the informant and the influence of anti-depressant drugs.
Black indicated it would be absurd for Leonard, whom investigators have described as a career con man, to believe that the death of one minor witness would lead to his freedom and dismissal of the criminal charges.
If Leonard is convicted he faces life without parole in prison.