Richmond Hill suspect trial moved to South Bend

Mark Leonard

The first of the trials in the Richmond Hill explosion will take place in St. Joseph County. Wednesday, a Marion County judge ordered Mark Leonard's trial moved to South Bend because of pre-trial publicity in Marion County.

Read the court document here.

A new judge will be named to take over the case in St. Joseph County, and that judge is expected to set a trial date. In previous court filings, attorneys said they expected to be ready for trial in spring 2015.

Leonard, his ex-girlfriend Monserrate Shirley and Leonard's brother Bob are accused of blowing up Shirley's home in November 2012 as part of a plan to commit insurance fraud. The explosion killed Shirley's next door neighbors, Dion and Jennifer Longworth, and damaged or destroyed more than 100 homes.

Mark Leonard's attorneys sent a statement to 13 Investigates after the change of venue decision. “We're pleased that the selection process for choosing a county to hear the case is complete,” wrote Deana Martin, from the Marion County Public Defender Agency. “St. Joseph was a county that both parties felt would be appropriate to hear this case.”

The new judge will be selected by a blind draw of the four judges in St. Joseph County.

The three suspects will have separate trials, with Mark's being scheduled first. Shirley and Bob Leonard have also asked for a change of venue, but no decision has been made yet on those cases.

Each of the three suspects faces 54 charges of murder, arson and insurance fraud.

Marion County Judge Sheila Carlisle selected St. Joseph County as the location after both parties had the opportunity to “strike” or rule out suggested locations.

Mark Leonard's attorneys requested the change of venue about a year and a half ago, in January 2013. Prosecutors objected citing a number of reasons including cost, which is expected to climb into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, the large amount of physical evidence to transport and the sheer number of witnesses expected to be called during the trial.

Before ruling on the change of venue request July 30, Judge Carlisle and attorneys spent several days attempting to seat a mock jury in order to determine if they could find an impartial jury in Marion County. Before that process was complete, Marion County Deputy Prosecutor dropped the objection. She said it was clear that assembling an impartial jury would be difficult and that holding the trial in Marion County would open them up to a number of issues for an appeal.

Prosecutors say one of the challenges in moving the case out of Marion County is the number of witnesses they expect to call. Current estimates put the number of potential witnesses at more than 200 people. That list includes many residents of the Richmond Hill neighborhood, investigators, and forensic experts.

Attorneys for Mark Leonard have already made a motion to consolidate witness testimony. In a January 2014 filing, they questioned having all of those witnesses take the stand and suggested that parties might be willing to stipulate to the injuries and much of the damage.

That motion and several others evidence and trial procedures are still outstanding for the new judge to consider.

The prosecutor's office says the trial could cost nearly 10 times the $70,000 paid to try former IMPD Ofc. David Bisard's drunk driving trial earlier this year. The prosecutor also says due to the large amount of exhibits and evidence needed to prosecute Leonard, they may look into renting a semi-trailer truck to get those items to South Bend.