Not-guilty pleas entered for Richmond Hill explosion suspects

Monserrate Shirley, Mark Leonard and Bob Leonard Jr.

The three suspects charged in the deadly Nov. 10 south side explosion made their first appearance in court Christmas Eve morning.

The judge entered preliminary not-guilty pleas for all three suspects in court Monday morning. They went back to jail after the hearing and will remain there on a no-bond order because of the murder charges involved in this case.

Monserrate Shirley remained quiet as deputies escorted her in shackles to and from court. Prosecutors say Shirley and her boyfriend Mark Leonard, along with his brother Bob, are responsible for the Richmond Hill explosion.

The blast killed Pam Mosser's nephew Dion Longworth and his wife Jennifer.

"People need to realize that Jennifer and Dion suffered until they died - until they were burned up," Mosser said.

Defense attorney Randy Cable will defend Shirley against charges which include murder. In court, the judge appointed the brothers public defenders.

Prosecutors say the trio plotted to burn down Monserrate's home to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars in insurance money. But instead, the house blew up, killing the Longworths next door and destroying or damaging dozens of neighbors' homes.

Both neighbors and family of the Longworths filled the courtroom.

"I wanted to be able to for them to see me stare them in the eyes and I did," said Mosser.

"I personally thought that someone was shooting at our house when I heard the noise, so I ran and I hid in the closet and I tried to call 911 but then I realized that it was not just our house. It was the whole neighborhood," said Cindy Mattox, Richmond Hill resident.

The landscape of the Richmond Hill subdivision continues to change as more homes are demolished. The families of Dion and Jennifer Longworth had hoped to find something sentimental among the debris from the couple's home.

"This is Christmas Eve and his dad is at the rubble left of his home, digging through his stuff, digging for anything he can find of Dion and Jennifer," said Mosser.

Despite what appears to be mostly circumstantial evidence, prosecutors believe they have a strong case.

"They were burned up, screaming, screaming and suffering, burning, seeing the fire coming. To me is just unbelievable someone can be at a casino, drinking and having a good time while they are blowing up their house and in the meantime Dion and Jennifer were in horrid, horrid moments until they died," said Mosser.

Monserrate Shirley and the Leonard brothers are accused of committing murder while in the process of committing arson. That alone makes this a possible death penalty case, though the prosecutor hasn't decided if he'll seek the death penalty.

All three are scheduled for a March trial. Prosecutors say that will likely be pushed back as they continue to look for a fourth suspect involved in the explosion.

About the case

The three suspects are accused of rigging a gas fireplace to fill Shirley's home with natural gas. Then, they allegedly set a timer so the microwave oven would turn on, creating a spark to blow up the house.

According to prosecutors, their plan worked, but did more damage than anticipated. Neighbors Dion and Jennifer Longworth were both killed in the explosion. Dozens of homes were damaged beyond repair and are now being demolished.

According to Prosecutor Terry Curry, the trio was motivated by money to come up with their "scheme to blow up the house, in order to have a claim on the insurance policy on the contents of the home."

Investigators say the three planned the explosion for an insurance payout. Court documents say Shirley was facing $63,000 in credit card debt and bankruptcy proceedings. Prosecutors say Mark Leonard had recently lost $10,000 at a casino.

Court documents indicate the insurance was increased recently to $300,000. 

The attorney for Shirley and Mark Leonard told The Associated Press they've maintained their innocence.

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