Mark Leonard gets life without parole for Richmond Hill explosion

Mark Leonard

Mark Leonard was sentenced Friday afternoon to life in prison without the possibility of parole on top of 75 years in prison.

Judge John Marnocha actually gave Leonard two life sentences - one for each of the "knowing murder" charges he was convicted on for Dion and Jennifer Longworth's deaths. The 75 additional years were for the other counts.

Life without parole

The courtroom quickly filled up Friday morning, with roughly 45-50 Richmond Hill residents and relatives of victims, plus 10 jurors who returned to witness Mark Leonard's fate.

Before any of them got to speak, though, Judge John Marnocha heard arguments surrounding the possibility of life without parole. The law requires judges take nothing else into consideration when deciding life without parole other than the aggravating factors prosecutors accused the defendant of. In this case, those were:

  • murder by unlawful detonation of an explosive with the intent to damage property
  • Dion Longworth died after Jennifer Longworth, not at the same time in the same way
  • Dion Longworth was burned or mutilated while he was still alive

Defense attorney Diane Black argued Leonard had a limited criminal history, including no violent or drug dealing convictions or arrests. Black also re-iterated their doubts surrounding whether or not prosecutors did enough to prove "knowing murder" in this case, saying the State was never able to definitively prove what the ignition source was, which means they never directly proved Leonard was the one to cause the explosion to happen.

She also reminded the judge most of the testimony regarding Leonard's involvement came from Monserrate Shirley, who they have always claimed was an unreliable witness. 

Black also brought up the testimony of Steve Shand, founder of Shand Forensics, who testified that Leonard and his co-conspirators "had no clue what they were doing," which she said proves Leonard could not have realized the potential danger of what they were doing.

Black's co-counsel, David Shircliff, then argued the life without parole law was approved by lawmakers only to put "the most heinous people behind bars so they can no longer plague the community with their violence." He referenced Thomas Hardy, who was sentenced in 2012 to life without parole for killing an Indianapolis police officer, and Ronald Davis who pleaded guilty to killing two women and their two young children in 2008 and was sentenced to 245 years in prison - two cases, Shircliff argued, that drastically contrast to what Leonard did.

"It's hard to think that life without parole was created to punish someone because of a very poorly planned and-- something that was done in order to collect insurance money," Shircliff told the judge, before accusing prosecutors of having political motivations for seeing a life without parole sentence.

Both Black and Shircliff took the opportunity to speak about how they personally felt about the case.

Black turned around to face the courtroom and told the residents and victims' relatives, "I have grieved with you, and I have cried and I have felt for all of you, and I know it's not much to say, but I am sorry for your pain and I'm sorry you had to go through this."

Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson said Leonard's lack of violent history is irrelevant to what sentence he should be given in this case. She also rebutted the defense's claims that there were still residual doubts surrounding whether or not Leonard is guilty of "knowing murder."

"This is not an intent crime, and we never alleged it was - but life without parole does not require intent," Robinson told Judge Marnocha. She continued, saying there cannot be any doubt about the "knowing murder" charges when a jury unanimously found Leonard guilty on both counts.

Regarding the accusations of political motivation, she said, "I believe life without parole is appropriate in this case...not for any reason other than it's what is called for under the law."

Judge Marnocha agreed with prosecutors that there was no residual doubt surrounding Leonard's guilt of "knowing murder." He also said he felt there was no evidence that prosecutors had shown political motivations by asking for life without parole, saying all prosecutors have discretion regarding which cases to file charges on and what charges they want filed in those cases.

"Prosecutors do different things in different communities for different reasons," he said. In this case, he felt they simply exercised that discretion - which was then validated by the jury when they convicted Leonard on both counts of "knowing murder," opening the door for a possible life without parole sentence.

As far as Monserrate Shirley is concerned, Judge Marnocha said, "I do not believe Ms. Shirley was, or is a victim....I will not portray her as an innocent victim...but I believe her, nonetheless, as a witness."

He then started addressing the aggravating factors prosecutors put forth.

Defense attorneys have argued a bomb was not used in this case, just gas. Judge Marnocha said the law does not require an explosive device, only an explosive, and either way, the home "may not have been blown up by virtue of a bomb, but...the causes were, in effect, a bomb."

He reasoned that if natural gas is deliberately leaked into a home, then an ignition source is planted (whether it was the microwave, thermostat, a candle, etc.), "What else is that other than a bomb?"

It was never disputed that Dion and Jennifer Longworth were both killed in the explosion, so he found prosecutors had proven their first aggravating factor.

While the call was never played in open court, Judge Marnocha had personally listened to the recording of Dion Longworth speaking with Comcast, who had called Longworth after the explosion triggered his house alarm. That recording documented his final moments, including that he had died after Jennifer and that he was trapped in an area that burned while he was still alive, so he found prosecutors had proven their second and third aggravating factors.

Beyond those mitigating factors, the judge found Leonard was not only a major participant, but orchestrated the entire crime, saying, "It was for his reasons all of this was done."

Taking all of that into account, he found "life without parole is an appropriate sentence in this case."

"This has changed us forever."

Having ruled on life without parole, Judge Marnocha called for victim impact statements. Ten people came forward to tell their story in-person. Richmond Hill residents who were injured or suffered damages and the families of the two people who died qualified to make statements. They were also given the option of writing letters instead of speaking in person. Those letters were due by Monday.

Judge Marnocha started laying down ground rules for Friday's hearing back in July, saying that when he takes victim impact statements, he is very explicit with all those who testify that they are to address him regarding their experience. He does not see victim impact - in any case, not just this one - as a chance for those affected to chastise the defendant.

"This is still a courtroom and there are still rules that apply and a code of conduct which applies," he re-iterated Friday. "This is not The Jerry Springer Show."

Tony Burnett, whose house was directly across the street from Monserrate Shirley's, said, "I do have some sympathy for Mark, but a little bit of sympathy for what happened does not erase what he did."

Bryan Hollingsworth told the judge, "We will likely never get back to our normal, pre-explosion life."

Gloria Olvey, who lived next door to the Longworths, said, "That night was the worst night of my life as a mother, a wife and a human being....We now live with PTSD to the point that we cannot function some days....Sometimes, I cannot even call in to work because I cannot get out of bed to reach a phone."

Jennifer Longworth's father then came forward. He only spoke for a few minutes, and focused less on the crime, and more on his daughter.

He spoke to her, saying, "Jenny, I love you and I think your work is done."

He then kissed his wife on her way forward to speak. She also spoke to their daughter for a time, saying, "There are times I can't believe you are gone and other times it's all too real."

Dion's father, John Longworth, was next to come forward, wearing a tie Dion had bought him.

He told the court, "None of us should be here today. This should never have happened."

He then told stories of happier times in Dion's life, including one time when he helped a teammate who fell during a high school cross-country competition reach the finish line after he fell. Longworth also said IUPUI, Dion's alma mater, had asked to start a scholarship in Dion's name in honor of all he had done for the university.

Dion's mother was the last to speak. She told Judge Marnocha, "The leprosy of grief is forever on me, my children and grandchildren....I hate that my brilliant son was brought down by such fools."

The defense had the right to call witnesses of their own, but declined to do so. Mark Leonard himself also had the right to directly make a statement himself, but also declined on the advice of his attorneys.

Additional sentencing

Judge Marnocha then had been presented everything he could consider when sentencing Leonard on his remaining charges.

The defense again requested he give Leonard the minimum on all counts, which would leave him with a sentence of 45 years. The State re-iterated their request for consecutive sentencing as a safety measure. (Some states' life without parole statutes have been ruled unconstitutional in the past; Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson said with that in mind, it is common practice among prosecutors nationwide to ask for term sentences on top of life sentences to ensure defendants cannot get out of prison in their lifetime.)

Before he could begin handing down sentences, Judge Marnocha first had to establish which counts he was able to give a sentence for.

  • While two people died, Leonard was actually convicted on four murder counts (twice each for Dion and Jennifer Longworth) and it is unconstitutional to be sentenced for the same crime multiple times. Prosecutors asked that Judge Marnocha merge the felony murder counts in with the knowing murder counts since the knowing murder counts are what carry the potential for life without parole.
  • All of the events of November 10, 2012, are considered a single "episode" of arson under the law. That means Leonard could only be sentenced on a single count of conspiracy even though he was convicted of three (you cannot conspire multiple times to commit a single crime).
  • In homes where multiple people suffered serious bodily injury, Leonard was convicted of a different count of felony arson for each person who was hurt, plus a separate count of felony arson for damage to the house itself. The Indiana Supreme Court has ruled, though, that defendants cannot be convicted of multiple felony arson counts for any individual house. Because of that, 12 felony arson convictions had to be vacated entirely.

Having already sentenced Leonard to life without parole for each of the "knowing murder" counts, that meant there were 35 counts left for Judge Marnocha to hand down sentences for:

  • 7 Class A felony arson
  • 27 Class B felony arson
  • 1 conspiracy

Before announcing what the sentences would be, the judge said in his own inspection of Leonard's criminal history, he found 15 misdemeanor convictions plus six felony convictions. In this case, Judge Marnocha found Leonard was the ringleader, not a mere bystander, who was motivated by his need for money and greed, and ignored his chances to reflect and reconsider his course of action when the first two attempts to set fire to the home failed.

He was also disturbed by the "sheer indifference to the safety of others" shown by the fact that all three of the attempts were done at times of the day when neighborhood residents were most likely to be in their homes. Finally, he cited the Indiana Supreme Court who has said in the past that those who kill other people while committing crimes motivated by money are "the worst of the worst."

Still, he said that it would be inappropriate for him to hand down a sentence out of a desire to send a message.

One message he did have was for residents and relatives in the courtroom. To them, he said, "There's nothing I can do to make this right....The sentence will not undo what has been done. There will never be closure."

That being said, he sentenced Leonard to 20 years for conspiracy and 55 years for the arson convictions (the most state law allows for arson convictions in cases of a single "episode"). Those convictions were ordered to be served consecutively, bringing Leonard to the 75 year total additional sentence he faced on top of his two consecutive life sentences.

Leonard was granted 966 days of "credit" toward that sentence for the nearly three years he spent in jail while awaiting trial.

Relatives & residents react

Outside the courthouse, the victims' families spoke to Eyewitness News.

"It's what I expected, so it didn't surprise me. The same thought always happens. It doesn't change anything. That may be a boring statement, but it just doesn't change anything. I miss my son and his wife and that's the only thing there," said John Longworth, Dion Longworth's father. "This makes me feel that it's going to work out. Everything will be alright."

"Judge Marnocha recognized Mr. Leonard as being 'the worst of the worst'," added Don Buxton, Jennifer Longworth's father. "Somehow, that helps a little bit."

Many of the residents and relatives were wearing yellow because it was Dion's favorite color. Bryan Hollingsworth chose to wear a yellow ribbon.

"Our hearts are always out for the Buxtons and the Longworths because they suffered the most," Hollingsworth said. "My wife and I, we can move on....It's more difficult for them and we're very sorry for their loss."

Case background

Leonard is the convicted ringleader of the plot to destroy Monserrate Shirley's home on November 10, 2012 to cash-in on the $300,000 insurance policy. The explosion killed two people, Dion and Jennifer Longworth, and did more than $4 million in damage, destroying more than 3 dozen homes and damaging more than 70 others.

Monserrate Shirley pleaded guilty to her charges in exchange for taking life without parole off the table. Part of that deal was that she testify against all of the other suspects, so she will not be sentenced at all until all of their trials are complete. A judge will then sentence her to 20-50 years in prison, but some or all of that could be suspended, meaning she could theoretically go home as soon as the other trials are over.

Bob Leonard, Mark Leonard's half-brother, has already been announced as the next in line to face trial. It will be held in Fort Wayne in January. Prosecutors have also asked for life without parole in his case.

Two other men, Gary Thompson and Glenn Hults, are also charged in connection with the explosion and are awaiting trial.