Richmond Hill trial: Closing arguments end, jury begins deliberations

South Bend courthouse
Richmond Hill trial: Closing arguments end, jury begins deliberations
Richmond Hill trial: Closing arguments end, jury begins deliberations
Richmond Hill trial: Closing arguments end, jury begins deliberations
Published:
Updated:

Two and a half years after an explosion killed Dion and Jennifer Longworth and destroyed or damaged more than 100 homes, the Richmond Hill trial is in the hands of a jury.

Before proceedings began Monday, Judge John Marnocha thanked jurors for giving up their lives for six weeks to serve in this trial, saying they had done more than any other jury he'd ever had.

Judge Marnocha then began reading final jury instructions, including a list of all 53 charges against Mark Leonard:

  • Counts 1-2: Felony Murder (murder while committing or attempting to commit another felony, in this case Arson)
  • Counts 3-4: Conspiracy to Commit Arson
  • Counts 5-16: Arson, Class A Felony (12 counts)
  • Counts 17-50: Arson, Class B Felony (34 counts)
  • Count 51: Conspiracy to Commit Insurance Fraud, Class C Felony
  • Counts 52-53: Knowing Murder (death occurred with defendant knowing it was possible)
    • lesser included: Reckless Homicide, Class C Felony
    • These must come back as guilty for murder if prosecutors want to move forward with a life without parole sentence
  • Click here for a more detailed explanation of the charges Leonard faces

Prosecution: Part 1

Deputy Prosecutor Mark Hollingsworth started by recapping the crime from cause to effect and finally responsibility.

The defense argued during the trial and again in their own closing statements that Lt. Mario Garza, IFD's lead investigator in this case, was overwhelmed by the size of the crime scene and the emotion of watching his fellow firefighters working to save lives. Hollingsworth, though, reminded the jury that Garza went to New York in the hours after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and was not overwhelmed by that experience, which was far worse than this one.

Lt. Garza's investigation found that natural gas was intentionally leaked into the house, mixed with oxygen and a competent ignition source. He said there were several potential ignition sources and that it doesn't matter which one actually triggered the explosion:

  • microwave/cylinder
  • thermostat (analog)
  • thermostat (digital)
  • candle

Hollingsworth then argued that what was missing in this case was far more suspicious than what was found:

  • multiple TV remotes, but no TVs (including several high-end models recently bought)
  • sentimental items removed from home
  • fireplace Dante valve

What was found was Mark Leonard's DNA on a letter to Robert Smith regarding the murder-for-hire plot to kill a potential witness, Mark Duckworth, and Bob Leonard's DNA on Monserrate Shirley's front door and the white van.

The murder-for-hire plot is evidence of guilt in and of itself, according to prosecutors. They say that under state law, killing a witness or trying to do so is "evidence of consciousness of guilt."

While the hit-man plot came after Leonard had already been arrested, prosecutors say the insurance fraud plan started long before.

"The conspiracy originated in this defendant's mind a year before the explosion," Hollingsworth told the jury.

He reminded jurors of Monserrate Shirley's testimony that Mark Leonard asked to see Shirley's insurance paperwork a mere two weeks after moving in and then suggested she raise her coverage to $300,000. In hopes of getting an even bigger payout, he tried telling investigators after the explosion there was $20,000 of cash inside the home at the time and that all of their vehicles were in mint condition to get full value on those policies as well.

"Even with a neighborhood destroyed, this defendant just wanted more money," said Hollingsworth. "The fact that people are dead doesn't matter; he wants more."

The Defense

When defense attorney David Shircliff got his turn, he continued the strategy seen from Leonard's team throughout the trial: shift blame from Leonard to Monserrate Shirley and poke any hole in the prosecution's case they can find.

"Proof is not, 'This just makes sense.' Proof is proof," he argued.

He said that 90 percent of what was presented during trial that directly implicates Leonard came from Monserrate Shirley, and "if it came from Monserrate Shirley, I don't find it credible."

"Everything in this case that relates to Mark Leonard is circumstantial. Everything you know about what happened has to do with Monserrate Shirley."

--Defense Attorney David Shircliff

Shircliff painted Shirley as a "master manipulator," saying her job as a charge nurse in an emergency room makes it clear she is competent not only to make decisions, but to take charge. He also reminded jurors of testimony that even when she was married to John Shirley, Monserrate was always the one to take care of the insurance, and at the time the insurance policy was raised to $300,000, Monserrate was $300,000 in debt.

One of the first investigators to interview Shirley after the explosion said he found nothing abnormal about her reactions or demeanor - she laughed when it was appropriate to laugh, she cried when you would expect a victim in that situation to cry - even though she was lying almost the entire time.

"I don't see how we can deny that Monserrate Shirley can lie as easily as she can tell the truth," he said. "Not only is she not credible - she's slick."

Leonard's attorneys have never claimed he was not involved, but Shircliff did call for guilty verdicts only on the conspiracy charges and the lesser-included charges of reckless homicide instead of murder.

"The question is not whether something bad happened," Shircliff told jurors. "The sole question is: Is Mark Leonard responsible for it?"

Prosecution - Part 2

The State got the opportunity to speak again after the defense wrapped up because the burden is on them to guilt, not the defense to prove innocence.

Denise Robinson started the prosecution's final closing arguments by quoting the defense's own opening statements:

  • "This was a stupid and selfish insurance fraud that went horribly wrong."
  • "This was supposed to be a small fire."
  • "Precautions were taken to ensure nobody was injured (at least at 8349 Fieldfare Way - including Snowball (the cat))."

She also quoted the defense's closing arguments when Shircliff said, "They [Leonard and Shirley] were at the casino because they wanted to be out of the Richmond Hill subdivision."

If they thought it would only be a small fire, Robinson argued, why did they go somewhere two hours away, three weekends in a row? Why not leave Shirley's daughter with her friends just down the street instead of continually sending her to Glenn Hultz's home in another neighborhood? Why board the family cat outside the neighborhood? She said it was because they knew of the probability the explosion would be much larger than "a small fire."

Based on the remarks defense attorneys made during opening statements - that it was a small fire for insurance fraud - Robinson argued Leonard is guilty on five counts by his own admission:

  • Count 51 (conspiracy to commit insurance fraud)
  • Count 3 (conspiracy to commit arson)
  • Count 49 (arson at Shirley's house)
  • Count 1: felony murder of Dion Longworth (someone died as the result of arson, whether those responsible intended for the death to happen or not)
  • Count 2: felony murder of Jennifer Longworth

Moving beyond the defense's own admissions, Robinson argued Leonard is also guilty of Count 4 - another conspiracy to commit arson charge, referring to their plans from raising the insurance policy all the way through the failed attempts. She pointed not only to Leonard and Shirley leaving town during each attempt, but also boarding the cat during each attempt, sending Shirley's daughter away to safety and the fact that they stayed in a hotel the night after the second attempt to help build a paper trail to separate themselves from the crime.

Robinson then had to make sure jurors understood the final two murder charges, "knowing murder." There are two different kinds of murder Leonard could have been charged with - knowing murder or intentional murder. "Intentional murder" was described as a case when murder is the conscious objective, goal or desire of the crime whereas "knowing murder" was described as acting while knowing the high probability that death will occur.

When Steve Shand of Shand Forensics testified during the trial, he said he could never duplicate this explosion in 50 years. Robinson argued he only meant that he could never duplicate the exact same explosion with the exact same circumstances in an intentional manner; she then re-iterated Leonard has not been charged with an intentional crime, only a "knowing" one.

She said Leonard had to know how likely it was that others would be affected by his actions because he had been told that by pumping in large amounts of natural gas, the house could eventually explode. Having lived at the home for nearly a year, he also knew that each house in the Richmond Hill neighborhood was only about 10 feet apart from the next house, and an explosion was highly probable to neighboring homes when they were that close.

Days before the explosion, he also bragged to Mark Duckworth that he was about to get a windfall payout.

Judge John Marnocha sent jurors back to the deliberation room around 4:30 p.m. to begin discussing the case, but said he only intended to allow them to continue for 20-30 minutes. He would then send them to check in at the hotel where they will remain sequestered until a verdict is reached.

Deliberations are expected to begin in earnest around 9:00 Tuesday morning.

Case Background

Mark Leonard, 46, is charged with 53 counts of murder, arson, conspiracy and fraud. He is the accused ringleader of the plot to destroy Monserrate Shirley's home 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.

Prosecutors have asked for a sentencing enhancement that would allow them to seek a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. That will only be possible if Leonard is found guilty of murder on the final two counts of "knowing murder."

Monserrate Shirley pleaded guilty to her charges in exchange for taking life without parole off the table. She will not be sentenced at all until all four of the other suspects have been tried. A judge will then sentence her to 20-50 years in prison, and some or all of that could be suspended. That means she could stay in prison for 50 years, or go home as soon as the other trials are complete.

Bob Leonard's trial has already been announced as the next in line. It will be held in Fort Wayne.

CONTINUING COVERAGE