Richmond Hill trial: Monserrate Shirley testifies

Monserrate Shirley (file photo)
Richmond Hill trial: Monserrate Shirley testifies
Richmond Hill trial: Prosecution, defense both rest their case
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Monserrate Shirley spent the entire day on the stand Wednesday, and the anticipation of her testimony was evident in courtroom attendance. There have been days with only two people in the audience other than media, but there were more than 30 Wednesday. Including journalists, it was closer to four dozen.

While Leonard has been in slacks, a dress shirt and tie throughout the trial, Shirley walked into the courtroom in shackles and a prison jumpsuit.

Prosecutors started by addressing her plea agreement. While she was charged in December 2012 for her role in the explosion, she pleaded guilty to two felony conspiracy charges earlier this year in exchange for her testimony. The now 49-year-old originally faced life in prison without parole. She now faces 20-50 years, though a judge has the right to suspend some, or all of that time. She will not learn her fate until after all four of her alleged co-conspirators has been tried. A copy of her plea agreement was entered into evidence and handed out to each member of the jury.

Two of those alleged co-conspirators were arrested as a direct result of her cooperation: Gary Thompson and Glenn Holts.

Background Story

Shirley is originally from Puerto Rico. She moved to the United States when she was 25. She was an RN for more than 20 years, starting her career in Michigan where she attended college, before moving to Indianapolis after her then-husband John Shirley got a job offer there. She transferred from her job in Michigan to the VA hospital in Indianapolis, where she worked for 17 years, focusing in the ICU. She later worked at St. Francis and Community South. She still qualifies as a practicing nurse.

Monserrate and John had the home in Richmond Hill built in 2003. It had three gas appliances - the water heater, the furnace and the fireplace. The stove was electric. The home also had a microwave above the stove which had a programmable timer.

John did all the maintenance on the home - she never did any. One of the projects he took on was working on the gas line in the fireplace. After he was done, the fireplace worked properly and they never smelled any gas inside the home because of it.

John moved out in February 2010 and their divorce was finalized that summer. She remained in the house as the sole owner until the explosion.

Mark & Monserrate

She met Mark Leonard at a bar on November 12, 2011. They went home together that night and he moved in the first week of December.

Defense attorneys later pointed out she allowed him to move in and eventually drive her daughter to school despite knowing he was serving house detention for a DUI charge.

Shirley testified Leonard asked to see the insurance policy on the home within a few weeks of moving in. He asked whose name the house was under, and she said it was entirely in her name after the divorce. He looked over the insurance policy and said she was under-insured so she called the insurance company and doubled her policy from $150,000 to $300,000.

He told her one of the reasons she needed to upgrade the policy was he planned to bring in some nicer things and do some work around the house to improve it and they would need the extra coverage to match the upgrades. The only improvement he ever made was to buy two flat screen TV's, a 65-70 inch model for the master bedroom and a 42 inch screen for her daughter's room.

When the relationship first started, she said, "He was a nice guy. We used to cook together, have dinner together....Very charming, very lovely man."

Leonard got sick in March 2012. It started as a bad headache, but quickly grew until he was hospitalized with an autoimmune disease serious enough he would need a blood transfusion. He eventually improved enough to return home, but Shirley had to continue caring for him for several months. She even took some leave from work to stay with him longer than her paid vacation time allowed.

In addition to his roofing business, Mastercraft, Leonard also flipped cars on the side. He occasionally worked on those cars at Shirley's home so she saw he had a wide array of tools.

Before meeting Mark, Shirley had never been to a casino. Their first trip together was to the Hollywood Casino roughly 3-4 months after they first met. He couldn't get a card to play with so she got a card for him and played on his behalf. He gave her $3,000 to use, and they lost it all.

He never gave her money like that again, but did play with his own money, spending anywhere from $2,000 - 10,000 each trip. The most money she ever remembered seeing him lose on a single trip was $7,000. She would sit with him, eat and drink and occasionally play slot machines. Sometimes they would go during the week while her daughter was at school and leave in enough time to pick her back up. She was 11 years old at that point.

Conspiracy Theory

Mark Leonard first mentioned trying to burn the house down in February 2012, according to Shirley. He told her his friend Glenn Holts had done the same at his own house with help from Gary Thompson, who worked for Leonard at the time. He said there wouldn't be a problem because it would be a small fire so no one would get hurt, and since she had a long history with the insurance company and no criminal record, they would get the money almost immediately.

Shirley said she thought the fire plan was crazy, but went along with it anyway.

The topic came up again around July 4. Holts invited Leonard and Shirley to his friend's house for a pool party in the Geist neighborhood. Shirley's daughter went with them in Leonard's Cadillac.

The host family had a lot of horses, so Shirley's daughter went to play with them under the supervision of Holts' girlfriend, Sharon, whose teen daughters often watched the girl.

Once they were alone, Leonard, Holts and Shirley started talking about the fire again while they sat around the pool drinking beer. No one else was within earshot, so far as she knew.

Leonard asked Holts to tell the story of his own fire, how easily he'd gotten the money and to re-assure Shirley everything would be alright if they did it at her house. He refused, though, and warned them, "You guys be careful, because I know someone who committed arson and got 75 years in prison."

Holts then asked who would get the money if they went through with it and Mark said, "Of course, me. I always get the money."

Leonard later tried telling Shirley that the only reason Holts wouldn't talk about his own fire was because he didn't want Leonard to end up with more money than he had.

After that, the fire wasn't mentioned again until the week before Halloween.

First Attempt

Leonard said he talked to Gary Thompson without her, telling him they were ready to do it. He was going to bring Thompson to their house so she could say she was okay to move forward, too. He did come to the house one week before the first attempt.

Thompson arrived on Monday or Tuesday, October 22-23, while Shirley's daughter was at school. Leonard told him Shirley was ready and she agreed. Leonard then tried to get Thompson to talk about what he did at Holts' home, but he refused, saying they shouldn't talk about it.

They started looking around the house at potential ways to start the fire. While Thompson checked the digital thermostat, Shirley heard him and Leonard say they could use it to trigger the fireplace as the source of the fire, but they never directly gave her any specifics on how they were going to do it. Thompson left after a few hours and Shirley didn't hear anything else before the first attempt that Saturday.

Leonard asked her to get a babysitter for her daughter, make a reservation at the casino's hotel for the two of them and to board the family cat, "Snowball." She took care of all three.

On Friday, October 26, Leonard told Shirley to get anything sentimental out of the house. She grabbed a few pictures, including the canvas portrait of her daughter at age 5 that hung above the fireplace. The girl was already out of the house while they cleared it of the sentimental items.

Leonard went to pick up Thompson in the white van witnesses in the neighborhood have previously testified seeing in Shirley's driveway. She said Leonard had bought it a few months beforehand at that point.

Shirley told her daughter not to come back to the house for any reason, though she didn't explain why not.

Leonard and Shirley went to the casino on Saturday, October 27, expecting Shirley's best friend and neighbor to call when the house caught fire. She never got a call, though. The next morning, they drove back and saw the house was still standing so they went on to Thompson's house where Leonard confronted him.

"You can't even do a fire. You're a piece of [expletive]. You can't do anything," he said. Thompson said he'd been pulled over by a cop so he couldn't get to the house.

"Mark can insult [Thompson], and he never does anything," Shirley said.

Second Attempt

Leonard started talking the next week about trying for a second time to burn down the home.

Thompson returned to their home to plan their next attempt. They decided to cut a piece of cardboard to block off the chimney path. This time, Leonard worked with Thompson instead of Thompson doing the work while Leonard stood next to him, watching and planning.

After the first failure, Leonard decided he also wanted to bring in his half-brother, Bob.

"He'll do anything I ask," Mark said of his brother.

Shirley had heard of Bob before, but had not met him before he came over Thursday, November 1. This time, Shirley's daughter was at home, but she was upstairs.

Mark and Bob stayed in the garage while they talked about what Bob's part would be, while Shirley stayed inside. After a while, Mark came back in and said Bob had agreed to help for $10,000, but never specified what exactly Bob would be doing.

Again, Monserrate agreed to do her same three preparations: a casino hotel reservation, a babysitter for her daughter and boarding for Snowball.

They went to the casino and waited for the call that a fire had broken out, but again, the call never came.

The next morning, they returned to Indianapolis and saw the house was again still standing so Mark called Bob and told him to meet at a nearby parking lot. This time, Mark and Bob talked alone while Monserrate left to pick up her daughter. While she was driving, Mark called to tell her to book a hotel room and to tell her daughter it was because the house was too cold to stay at. He told her to tell Holts, though, that they would be trying the fire again that night (Sunday night).

When she told him, Holts said, "Between Mark and Gary, they're going to blow up the whole neighborhood."

She and her daughter went to the hotel, where Mark later joined them. Shirley didn't hear anything more about a plot to start a fire that night, and nothing happened.

They returned home the next morning.

The Explosion

While still at the hotel, Mark asked her to call a heating & cooling company on Sunday, November 4, to see what they would charge to check on the heat because the house was too cold. She said Mark didn't actually want anyone to come to the house, he just wanted a trail they could point to after the fire so they could explain why they were in the hotel.

On Monday, November 5, they changed out the thermostat for a "cheaper" model. Mark had called her asking which credit card he could buy the thermostat with, but she didn't see him actually switch out the thermostat for the new one, nor did he ever say who did it.

She was upset when she got home that night and saw her nicer digital thermostat sitting on the kitchen island and the new cheaper model on the wall. She asked that Mark and Bob switch it back out for the nicer version. They laughed at her for asking, but it was switched back out.

On Thursday, Shirley worked a 12 hour shift. When she got home, Mark told her he and Bob had gone to the library to research other similar homes that had been set on fire without anyone getting hurt. She asked Mark not to try the house fire plan again. In exchange, she offered him the money in her 401K. When she told him there was around $10,000-12,000 in it, he said that wasn't enough. "I want $300,000."

When prosecutors asked if she was serious about the 401K offer, Shirley said, "I would have given him anything because I was in love with him."

Once again, she agreed to make the same three arrangements: the casino reservation, a babysitter for her daughter and boarding for Snowball.

By this time, Shirley's daughter had noticed her portrait was no longer above the fireplace and asked Monserrate about it. She told her daughter a friend had taken it to put a new frame on it.

Monserrate worked Friday, November 9. When she left that morning, her daughter and Snowball were still there (Mark was going to take them to school and the kennel). It was the last time she would be in her home before the explosion. After her 12 hour shift, she planned to see her daughter at the Holts' house and change there. She would then go to a southside bar to meet Mark before they left for the casino.

When she arrived at the bar, she found Mark and Bob in the white van at a nearby gas station. She got in the van with them, and Mark asked her to give Bob $40. Mark then asked Bob twice to "go get the part that we need." He also told Bob to go get Gary Thompson.

She and Mark then gassed up her car and drove to the casino. When they arrived, Mark told her the fire would happen Saturday night so she needed to ask to keep their room a second night (Saturday night). They got to the room, but Mark wasn't feeling well so he stayed there while Shirley played slot machines for about an hour. She then got food for them both and went back to the room around midnight.

Saturday morning, they headed to the casino and Mark played a blackjack table, then they went to the bar and sat, waiting to get the phone call their home had caught fire. John Duncan was the one to call, saying something horrible had happened on her street and he wanted to make sure she and her daughter were okay. She then spoke with another neighbor, who told her there had been an explosion.

Shirley said she would come back immediately, but they told her there was no house to come back to.

"Everything they were telling me, it could not be possible," Shirley said on the stand as she started to get emotional. "That's not what you told me," she remembered saying to Mark. "That cannot be real."

She said Mark told her, "It cannot be that bad....Don't worry about it. Everything's under control."

The Aftermath

Critics have accused Shirley of faking her reaction after the explosion because she seemed upset but never shed a tear. She testified Wednesday she has a condition that prevents her tear ducts from actually producing tears. She still wiped under her eyes with a tissue several times while she was on the stand.

She said she did not tell officers at the time what happened because she was scared. After speaking with detectives, they went to Mark's sister's home, where they spent the night.

The next morning, they went to Bob Leonard's mobile home. She told them she didn't want anything to do with them anymore. "Two innocent people died because of this!" she said. Bob Leonard said, "Well, you're in it. You're done."

She asked Mark and Bob what happened that made it be an explosion instead of a fire. They said they didn't know.

Bob had been asking for his $10,000 payment before the explosion even happened. Roughly a week afterward, Mark asked Shirley for $500. She gave it to him, and he used it to pay Bob. That was the last time she saw Bob before they were arrested.

Mark started telling Shirley they needed to get their stories straight before police started asking questions. They agreed to say they'd been having trouble with the thermostat and smelling gas for a while. She said he also told her not to worry because he took out the step-down valve on the gas line, "and put it away where no one else would ever find it."

When they went to pick up Shirley's daughter on Sunday, Holts told Mark to "Get the [expletive] out of here. I don't want to be involved in any of this."

Prosecutors ended by asking Shirley if the Longworths or any of her other neighbors deserved what happened.

"No one deserves what happened," she said. "No one."

Cross-examination

The defense team started their cross-examination by establishing Shirley's ability to make life-and-death decisions in high-pressure situations while a charge nurse in the ICU. They then worked to establish a pattern of poor decisions in her personal life and changing stories throughout the investigation.

Wednesday in court, Shirley said that at the July 4th pool party, she called lighting the house on fire crazy. In a deposition before the trial, though, she reported saying, "I'm not doing this. This is too risky." Defense counsel said the deposition version showed she was actually in favor of burning the house down, she just didn't want to get caught. In fact, they said that at the time she raised her insurance policy to $300,000, she was roughly $300,000 in debt (more than $200K between her two mortgages on top of the bankruptcy settlement left over from her divorce).

The first time Gary Thompson first came over to discuss starting a fire, she told him, "I'm ready, as long is this is a small fire. I don't want anyone to get hurt," then started cooking dinner. She agreed that's what happened, but insisted she only said what Mark told her to say.

"I said anything to keep him with me."

Defense attorney David Shircliff then said Shirley may not have provided the "means" for the explosion, but she took care of the logistics to make sure no one realized she was helping blow up her own home. Again, she said, "Because I was not able to tell him 'no'." She later pointed out she agreed to the plot under Mark Leonard's premise that it would be a small fire at just her home - not an explosion that would affect other people.

When asked why she didn't take Leonard's hospitalization in March 2012 as an opportunity not to let him back into her home since she knew what he wanted to do by that point, she said she couldn't turn away a sick person.

"I am a nurse. I care about people. I have morals....I love my patients and I would do anything for them."

She re-iterated that she offered him her retirement savings in place of burning the home. According to Shirley, he said the house fire would happen, "even if I have to step in the living room and light up this house myself."

Shirley gave 12 interviews and statements between the explosion and Wednesday's testimony - some for law enforcement, others for attorneys and one for the media - and defense attorneys pointed out inconsistencies between some of those. In one case, she said the first attempt was supposed to be tied to gasoline not natural gas. In another, she said Mark Leonard turned on the gas line and actually lit the fire during the second attempt. In court Wednesday, she said he turned on the gas, but never lit the fire.

After court adjourned for the day, Shircliff said he attacked her inconsistencies "to show that she can tell the truth as easily as she tells a lie, and it's hard for the jury to know the difference."

When asked if the attacks on Shirley's credibility would damage the State's case, Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson said, "If you think about anybody who gives a number of statements, and you think about inconsistencies when you're asked questions and you have to answer the questions that you're asked [no more, no less]. That's what...we'll be asking the jury to consider."

The defense wrapped up a little more quickly than expected after Judge John Marnocha denied their request to play a video of Shirley's 2012 interview with the media.

"I don't understand it," Shircliff said of the judge's ruling. "The State asked questions about [the interview] and...the judge said on the record that he saw no difference in her demeanor [on the video] than what she did today and that was our whole point: that she can tell a lie as easy as she tells the truth."

Looking Ahead

Shirley may have been the prosecution's highest profile witness, but that doesn't mean they're done.

"Cases are made up of hurdles all the time," Robinson said Wednesday. "You face one, you get over one and you've got another one all the way until the end. We've got a few more."

Prosecutors told Judge Marnocha Tuesday they will likely rest their case next Wednesday or Thursday. The defense said if prosecutors wrapped up early enough on Thursday, they could call all of their witnesses that day alone and closing arguments could be held Friday, July 10.

If that timeline holds, final jury instructions would be given Monday, July 13 then deliberation would begin.

Leonard is charged with 53 counts of murder, arson and conspiracy. He faces up to life in prison without the possibility of parole if convicted.

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