Richmond Hill trial: Testimony continues after mistrial hearing

South Bend courthouse

Four witnesses took the stand Thursday after a morning hearing where Judge John Marnocha denied the defense's motion for a mistrial.

Michael Putzek was the first to be called. He is a firearm and toolmark examiner with the Marion County Crime Lab.

Toolmarking is effectively what the name implies - when looking at an object that has damage of some kind, like a fractured pipe, he determines what tool may have been used to cause the damage or markings.

In this case, he was asked to look at the gas line from Monserrate Shirley's fireplace. He started with a quick internet search to find what type of log lighter it was, then used that manufacturer information as a baseline for what the pipe should have looked like had nothing happened to it.

Putzek walked the jury through his entire examination of the pipe as well as the gas manifold. He said that the pipe had fracturing in it that was severe enough it "would take a large force to have broken off those threads and left that fracture."

During the defense's cross-examination, he said that it is impossible for him to tell when marks are made, just what made them happen.

"A catastrophic incident"

After a brief recess, prosecutors called Fred Hackett to the stand. He works with Midwest Forensic Services in Indianapolis, a company that specializes in fire and explosion investigations. He has worked roughly 10,000 fire and explosion cases in his career.

He personally was in Nevada doing a seminar on the night of the explosion, but dispatched others from his office to the scene when he was told about it. After 10 minutes assessing the scene, those colleagues told Hackett he needed to get back immediately so he hopped on the next flight home.

When Hackett first got to the scene, he said the debris "clearly showed a catastrophic incident." He and his colleagues started assessing how far the debris had traveled, how large individual pieces of debris were and which way the percussion wave moved through the area. Together, these factors helped them determine the epicenter of the blast and whether it classified as a high-order or low-order detonation.

It was decided the explosion qualified as a high-order detonation, which meant that if natural gas was involved, it would have taken a lot of natural gas to cause the destruction they saw.

After the explosion was ruled non-jurisdictional (the cause was in resident-owned piping), their focus switched to helping authorities and utilities find the root cause of what DID happen, as per protocol in place long before this incident.

While surveying the damage, Hackett saw the Maxitrol valve was missing from Monserrate Shirley's gas line and had been replaced with black pipe. He notified authorities immediately.

Hackett said that most microwaves that are damaged by explosions are simply flattened. The microwave inside Shirley's home had rather been blown apart. It did not immediately mean anything to him other than it was an anomaly that needed to be looked into as part of the investigation. He also agreed with previous testimony that the bottle/canister found nearby showed evidence of containing a liquid of some kind that eventually built up pressure until it exploded and destroyed the container.

The furnace and water heater inside Shirley's home both showed external damage but, according to Hackett, were clearly not the source of the explosion. The log lighter for the gas fire place was the only other gas appliance in the house, and Hackett testified the final valve on that line was missing and it had disappeared before the explosion.

He testified that the only potential ignition sources he was during his time walking through the explosion scene were the microwave and the remains of a candle.

A microwave can be used as an ignition source, according to Hackett, by cooking something inside until it builds up enough pressure it explodes. Microwaves also pull in air from the room they are in. If that air was saturated with natural gas, the gas could then be ignited by something inside the microwave or even by a spark coming off the fan on the microwave unit itself.

Hackett testified that the remains of Monserrate Shirley's microwave are consistent with its use as an ignition source for a fire or explosion, though during cross-examination, he confirmed that was only based on looking at it at the scene. He performed no tests on it at his lab, nor did he test the cylinder prosecutors believe was used as the pressure vessel.

Process of elimination

Prosecutors next called Jason Burke to the stand. He is an HVAC project manager for the Indianapolis-based mechanical contracting firm that provided HVAC work for the Richmond Hill neighborhood when it was first constructed in the early- to mid-2000s, including Monserrate Shirley's home.

Burke testified that the specific furnace and water heater units installed at Shirley's home have safety features built into them to help keep them from being used as ignition sources. If the regulator was removed from the furnace and 2PSI of natural gas started flowing into it (the rate gas flows at when the regulator is removed), it would automatically shut down, according to Burke. He said the same of the water heater.

The fireplace's gas-powered log lighter, though, has no such safety features.

Based on pictures the prosecution showed of the furnace, Burke said it could not have been the cause of a fire. Based purely on the safety features included on the unit installed at the house, he said the same of the water heater.

Prosecutors then showed Burke pictures of the home's log lighter and he said there were two things wrong with it:

  1. It was missing a step-down regulator
  2. The union - a piece that allows contractors to work on the gas line without having to dismantle the entire thing - was in the wrong place

A "significant" spike

Michael Sullivan of Citizens Energy Group was called as the final witness of the day.

He heard the explosion at his own home, which is several miles from the Richmond Hill area, but wasn't called to the scene right away. Chris Braun with Citizens called him Sunday saying there had been an explosion and he would need Sullivan's help Monday to start the company's own investigation into the incident.

Sullivan witnessed the pressure test of their system in the neighborhood and was then asked to see if more gas went through the Shirley home than others in the neighborhood. His investigation found the Shirley home used significantly more natural gas than other houses in the neighborhood - not just the neighborhood's average, but significantly more even compared to the next-highest home in the neighborhood.

Based on Sullivan's calculations, it was the same as if Monserrate Shirley had run her furnace uninterrupted for 128 hours more than she normally did in a 17 day period, or her water heater uninterrupted for 256 hours more than normal in a 17 day period.

Sullivan confirmed previous testimony from other employees at Citizens Energy that it is impossible for Citizens to know when gas was used at the Shirley home other than to say how much was used over the entire 17 day billing period - it could have all been used in a single day, or it could have been evenly distributed across the entire 17 days. That means if prosecutors are right and Leonard, Shirley and their alleged co-conspirators had a failed attempt to blow up the house before November 10, some of the excess gas usage could have come from that other attempt.

Looking forward

The prosecution's timetable for witnesses had to be slightly altered after losing an entire day of testimony Wednesday so attorneys to put together briefs on the defense's motion for a mistrial.

After court adjourned for the week Thursday, prosecutors did confirm, though, that they plan to call Monserrate Shirley to the stand next week, likely on Tuesday or Wednesday.

The trial is scheduled to resume Monday morning at 10:30.