Richmond Hill explosion
|Time||11:10 p.m. EST|
|Date||November 10, 2012|
|Location||Richmond Hill, Indianapolis, Indiana|
|Property damage||US$ 4.4 millon|
On November 10, 2012, an explosion in the Richmond Hill subdivision in Indianapolis, Indiana caused two deaths and more than $4 million in property damage. The home of Monserrate Shirley was found to be the center of the explosion. The explosion killed next-door neighbors John "Dion" Longworth and his wife Jennifer Longworth (née Buxton), and injured seven others. Prosecutors alleged that the natural gas explosion was intentionally set in order to collect insurance money. Shirley, her boyfriend Mark Leonard, and three others were charged with felony murder. Leonard, who also lived at the residence, was also charged with conspiracy to commit murder after he allegedly attempted to hire a hitman to kill a key witness in the case. Leonard's trial began in June 2015. His defense team admitted that the blaze was intentionally set, but told jurors it was only intended to be a small fire and that murder was never his intention.
At about 11:10 p.m., on November 10, 2012, a large explosion occurred in Richmond Hill, a subdivision on the southeast side of Indianapolis. The explosion leveled 8349 Fieldfare Way, the home at the center of the explosion, and severely damaged a number of other residences, including several that were damaged by the ensuing fire. Two people in the house at 8355 Fieldfare Way were killed in the explosion and seven others were injured. Thirty-three homes were damaged severely enough that they had to be demolished. Over 60 firefighters responded to the blaze. Damage to homes in the neighborhood was estimated at $4 million.
The home at the center of the explosion was owned by a woman named Monserrate Shirley, a Puerto Rican-born nurse. She and her boyfriend, Mark Leonard, who also lived at the residence, told authorities that they left Friday night for a weekend at Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg, IN. They had arranged for Shirley's 12-year-old daughter to stay with friends and they boarded their cat for the weekend.
Shirley told the police that she never smelled any natural gas, but her daughter thought she did recently. "She said, 'Mommy, it smells like gas in here, like in the laundry room'," recalled Shirley of their conversation. "She says, 'Every time I come home from school and we open the garage doors, I smell gas in there'."
An investigation began involving the Indianapolis Division of Homeland Security, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Indianapolis Fire Department. On November 19, it was announced that the investigation had become a criminal investigation.
Prosecutors alleged that on the Friday before the explosion, Mark Leonard and his brother Bob spoke with a neighbor who was a Citizens Energy employee, asking that person about the differences between propane and natural gas. On the day of the explosion, another neighbor saw a white van pull into the driveway of Shirley's residence between 2:00 and 3:00 p.m. The men were reportedly in the home briefly and hurriedly left. Bob Leonard's son told investigators that several items were in the van that had been taken from the home, including photos and financial documents. Police became suspicious when they uncovered evidence that the couple took similar steps the previous weekend; the cat was boarded and Shirley's daughter was placed with a babysitter overnight before going to the casino. Investigators said personal insurance on the home had recently been increased to $300,000.
The most damning piece of evidence was a witness statement from an associate of Mark Leonard who told investigators that the weekend before the explosion, Leonard told him that "the house blew up". He reportedly said, "[T]he tsunami winds came down the chimney, blew out the fire in the fireplace and the gas kept running and the house blew up." The witness also told investigators that Leonard talked about buying a Ferrari and that the insurance money from the house would pay for it.
Investigators discovered a number of allegations of insurance fraud and other scams by Mark Leonard prior to the blast, particularly involving stolen or wrecked automobiles. Included on the probable cause affidavit are complaints from several women claiming that Leonard scammed them out of thousands of dollars. Many of the women reported that they met him on dating sites and that he soon began asking them for money. One woman had previously won a $70,000 judgment against Leonard in a civil suit after lending him $53,000, which he never repaid. Another woman reported that she had loaned him about $5,000 for a construction job, which he has yet to pay back.
Monserrate Shirley, Mark Leonard, and Bob Leonard were initially charged with two counts of murder and arson in the deaths of Dion and Jennifer Longworth. Though the trio was eligible for the death penalty under Indiana law, prosecutors chose to pursue life sentences without parole for Shirley and the Leonard brothers, stating they believed a jury would be unlikely to impose the death penalty as they had found no evidence that the suspects intended to cause the deaths. A fourth person, Gary Thompson, was charged in January 2015 with the same charges. In April 2015, a fifth man, Glenn Hults, was charged with conspiracy to commit arson. Hults and his then-fiancée babysat Shirley's daughter on the night of the explosion. Shirley alleged that Hults initially came up with the idea.
Prosecutors contend that they filled the house with natural gas and then used the spark from a microwave which could be set in advance to detonate it. The alleged motive for the arson was to collect insurance money to ease financial strain. Shirley was set to receive over $300,000 in insurance money for the replacement of the home as well as personal items. Investigators found the couple to have substantial debt, including $63,000 in credit card debt and bankruptcy proceedings, court documents say. A friend of the couple reported that Mark lost $10,000 at the casino approximately three weeks before the explosion. A second mortgage was taken out on the home for $65,000 in addition to the original home loan of $116,000.
Prosecutors initially sought to try the suspects together, but the defendants were granted the right to separate the trials. Prosecutors then proposed an unusual strategy involving one trial, but three separate juries, one for each defendant. This type of trial is unusual, but not unheard of and was used in the trial of the Menendez brothers. Judge Shelia Carlisle rejected the proposal, noting that no Indiana law authorizes the use of concurrent jury trials. The trials started in 2015. The defendants requested that the trials be moved over concerns they would not receive a fair trial in Central Indiana due to the high profile media coverage received by the case. Mark Leonard was granted a change of venue and was tried in South Bend.
On January 16, 2015, Monserrate Shirley agreed to a plea deal with Marion County Prosecutors. The plea deal involves Shirley pleading guilty to two counts of conspiracy in exchange for testifying against the other suspects.
Conspiracy to commit murder
On March 28, 2013, Mark Leonard was charged with conspiring to murder the key witness against him, identified only as MD. Leonard allegedly asked another inmate at Marion County Jail if he could put him in contact with a hit man, according to the probable cause affidavit. The inmate and Leonard drew up a contract agreeing that Leonard would pay the inmate $15,000 when he was released, the affidavit said. On March 13, he allegedly placed a call to a man who he believed to be a hit man. The man he called was an undercover agent. Prosecutors also allege that he offered the hit man a $5,000 bonus if he made the murder look like a suicide. They claim that Leonard wanted the hit man to force the witness to call 911 and recant his statement before killing him.
In a case unrelated to the explosion charges, Mark Leonard has also been charged with conspiracy to commit insurance fraud along with another man. Prosecutors have alleged that the men conspired to submit an insurance claim for a stolen motorcycle. Prosecutors contend that the motorcycle was disassembled in Monserrate Shirley's garage.
Mark Leonard's trial began in June 2015. His defense team admitted that the blaze was intentionally set, but told jurors it was only intended to be a small fire and that murder was never his intention. The defense said what became the Richmond Hill explosion was only supposed to be a "stupid and selfish insurance fraud that went horribly wrong", adding, "Precautions were taken to ensure people weren't harmed." The case was expected to be the largest and most expensive trial in Marion County history.
Prosecutors expected to admit nearly 3,000 pieces of evidence, and potentially call up to 175 witnesses.
Bob Leonard was convicted on all 51 counts, including murder and conspiracy to commit arson, on February 24, 2016. He was sentenced to two life sentences without parole, as well as 70 years from other charges, on March 18, 2016.
Monserrate Shirley pled guilty. Her attorneys argued that she was trapped in an abusive relationship and was coerced by Mark Leonard into participating in the crime. Psychologist Dr. Stephanie Callaway diagnosed her with dependent personality disorder, but admitted under cross-examination that, while the diagnosis explains Shirley's actions, it does not absolve her of responsibility. Monserrate Shirley was sentenced to a maximum of 50 years in prison on December 20, 2016.
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