Richmond Hill trial: The murder-for-hire plot

South Bend courthouse

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WTHR) - Mark Leonard's alleged murder-for-hire plot took center stage at his trial Thursday.

Authorities say Leonard tried to have witness against him killed before this trial began.

Who is Robert Smith?

Cory Grogg, a former sergeant with the Marion County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) gang and intelligence unit, said he was forwarded a letter written by Robert Smith, the man prosecutors claim Leonard first tried to hire as a hit man. The letter was not read aloud in court, but Grogg said he contacted Metro Police Det. Jeff Wager, who was assigned to Leonard's case, and Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson as soon as he read the letter himself.

It was addressed to Corey McGriff, also formerly of the MCSO gang and intelligence unit. McGriff had worked with Smith on other cases, and Smith had even taken to calling him "my cop." Again, the specifics of those conversations and letters were not published to the court.

Smith's criminal record, though, was entered into evidence. It included offenses dating back to when he first turned 18 in 1982:

  • 1982: disorderly conduct and conversions ("taking things that don't belong to you" as described by Defense Attorney Diane Black)
  • 1984/85: forgeries
  • 1989: DUI
  • 1994: carrying a handgun without a license
  • 2005: theft, misdemeanor resisting
  • 2008: receiving stolen property (knowingly buying stolen property; he said, "I buy merchandise at a cheap price.")
  • 2010: neglect of a dependent for not paying child support
  • 2012: theft, escape (both felonies)

Those convictions left him passing in and out of jail throughout his adult life.

Smith was serving his sentences for the 2012 theft and escape convictions at the time of the explosion, which is how he and Leonard ended up in the same cell block.

He was given plea deals to lower his sentence on both charges, but those deals were negotiated separately from his agreement to testify in this case. His testimony in this case bought him a lower bond, so it was easier to post bail. He has since finished serving all of his time, is not currently under any other pending charges and currently holds a full time job in Indianapolis.

Jurors were given copies of his full criminal history as well as his plea deals for those final two charges and the deal he got for testifying in this trial before hearing from the man himself.

Smith testified he had no knowledge of the explosion before meeting Mark Leonard in prison in November or December 2012.

When asked why he was testifying against Leonard, he said, "I just thought it was the right thing to do."

The Informant

As a maximum security unit, prisoners on Smith's cell block were in one-man cells 23 hours a day with one hour for exercise. Even during that hour, each inmate is separated from all others by bars. Smith said there isn't anything to do during that time but watch TV and talk to others who are in the yard. That's how he and Leonard first met.

The two started talking and Smith told Leonard he was from the Mars Hill area of southwest Indianapolis. That's where Leonard's half-brother, Bob Leonard, lives, but Smith doesn't know him.

Bob Leonard is also charged in this case, and is scheduled to go to trial after this trial wraps up.

Smith said Mark eventually started talking a little about Mark's case. Mark reportedly told Smith that Bob drove the white van they'd used to take a number of valuable items out of the home before the explosion. A neighbor saw and was going to be a witness, so "he wanted to get him killed...because he was lying, setting him up, trying to get him in prison for the rest of his life." Mark reportedly thought Smith could do the job because the neighbor who saw the van was also from Mars Hill. Smith had also told Mark he used to be a member of the Aryan Brotherhood and knew members of a local biker gang.

"He was willing to pay a fee for [the murder]," Smith said of Leonard. "I told him I couldn't do it but I told him I could find somebody who could."

Smith testified he didn't actually intend to help Leonard, but said he would because he knew being an informant could benefit him in his own cases.

As far as the explosion itself, Smith said Mark told him Bob Leonard shut all of the curtains in the house and then stomped on the gas line. He was supposed to just make a crack in it, but accidentally broke off an entire piece of it. Mark also said they used a microwave with some kind of timer function to ignite the gas and that insurance would have paid him $300,000.

Court documents such as witness statements, depositions and charging papers typically go to defendants' lawyers. Smith said he saw a stack of the papers in Leonard's cell, though, and that Leonard kept a tight grop on them.

"He never let his paperwork out of his sight, out of his cell," Smith said.

His testimony Thursday was based solely on what he claims Mark told him in person.

Smith contacted an officer he knew and told him everything Mark had said. He also wrote two letters to staff at Marion County Jail about what he knew, and included an "IOU" type letter that he'd gotten Mark to sign saying Mark would pay the hit man after he got out of jail. It also included a map to the witness's home.

His information made its way to the IMPD detectives assigned to the case, Deputy Prosecutor Robinson and eventually the ATF.

Undercover Agent

Authorities gave Smith the name "Jay" and a phone number to pass along to Mark. "Jay" was actually ATF Special Agent Jeremy Godsave, who would pose as a hit man in order to corroborate Smith's claims.

Godsave testified he felt he needed to act quickly on behalf of the witness, Mark Duckworth, because if Smith was telling the truth and Leonard really had tried to hire him as a hit man, it was possible Leonard had been reaching out to others to get the job done, too, and Duckworth could be in imminent danger.

Most of Godsave's testimony was actually Prosecutor Denise Robinson playing recordings of the two conversations Godsave had posing as "Jay" while talking to Leonard.

In the first, Leonard gave "Jay" directions to the witness' house, as well as the make and model of the car normally parked in the driveway. He assured "Jay" that Duckworth would be alone and didn't own any dogs, even telling him, "The back door would be the best door to go to." Leonard confirmed he was the one who drew the map to Duckworth's house seen in the letter Smith had provided.

Godsave had already driven to Duckworth's home using the map before Leonard called him. He testified Thursday the map as well as all of the details Leonard provided during that phone call were accurate. He still asked Leonard to call him a second time the next day, though, to "make sure he was fully committed."

"This is obviously something very serious," Godsave said. "I wanted to give him every opportunity to back out."

Leonard did call him back the next day, but not only confirmed he still wanted "Jay" to go forward with the murder, he even added more instructions that make it appear he wanted to cover it up as a suicide. He told "Jay" to leave a note behind that included two phrases or sentences:

  • "I did not mean to frame Mark and Moncie for their own house in Richmond Hill"
  • "The large amounts of money [Leonard] always leaves laying around...that's what bought a lot of drugs and whores"

Leonard told "Jay" that if he succeeded, "I'll be out in a few days."

As soon as the second recording finished playing, prosecutors wrapped up for the day. Defense attorneys didn't ask a single question of Special Agent Godsave for cross-examination.

Contested Testimony

Smith's path to the witness stand wasn't a clear one. Defense attorneys tried to exclude his testimony before jurors ever entered the courtroom Thursday.

Defense Attorney David Shircliff said Leonard was under the influence of prescription drugs given to him by Smith at the time of their interaction, including anti-psychotics. He said it was impossible to know all of the drugs Leonard was on because Smith allegedly used his own medications as currency throughout the jail. If that was the case, he could have traded for other drugs and given Leonard anything.

Shircliff claimed to have a witness who would testify Smith gave Leonard pills 2-3 times a day, 4-6 days a week, and they were all "different colors and sizes of pills." He said they also had audio recordings of Leonard taking pills, sometimes 4-5 at a time.

Deputy Prosecutor Mark Hollingsworth said Smith had denied passing any of his own medication to Leonard. Beyond that, since it is impossible to know what pills Leonard was taking, how many or at what times, it is impossible to know how he was affected by them - if at all. Also, Hollingsworth argued, Leonard took all of those pills voluntarily, and voluntary intoxication is not a defense.

Courts have ruled in the past that threats to kill a witness are outright admissible, according to Judge Marnocha. On top of that, Smith was deposed before Thursday's hearing and denied the defense's allegations. Judge Marnocha said there was no reason to stop the trial because a witness MIGHT end up lying on the stand. If he did lie on the stand, Marnocha said the defense could then prove he impeached himself.

The defense worked to do just that.

While on the stand, Smith said he always took all of his own medications, so he didn't have any to trade or give to Leonard. Shircliff, though, played a phone call between Smith and his girlfriend in which Smith talked about convincing the jailhouse medical staff that the pills they were giving him weren't working in order to get them to up his dosage, and then doing the same thing again two weeks later. He also talked about managing to hide some of those pills.

Smith insisted he was lying to his girlfriend on that phone call.

"I'm liable to tell her anything," he said, claiming he often lies to her to get her to do what he wants, and the phone call was just an example of that.

He said it would have been impossible for him to actually hide the pills because inmates have to take their pills in front of a nurse and doctor who check your mouth to make sure you actually swallowed them instead of hiding them under your tongue.

When asked after court adjourned what Judge Marnocha's decision to allow Smith to testify meant to the defense's case, Shircliff said, "The point is that he's a professional. He fed [Leonard] medications, and he worked him, and he wrote the letter himself as he testified to, and we believe that's the only reason this happened is because Smith wanted to get out [of jail] and he wanted to get money."

"Robert Smith is what he is," Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson said in a separate interview. "The jury will make that decision [of whether or not to believe him.]. But the jury then heard the actual phone calls from the mouth of the defendant."

Proving the murder-for-hire plot was especially important to the prosecution's case because, according to Robinson, "The law says that if you do that, it's evidence of consciousness of guilt [in the initial crime]. That's the way the law is phrased, so that's the evidence we presented to the jury."

Another Mistrial Denied

Before trying to get Smith's testimony excluded, the defense once again moved for a mistrial, this time based on a discovery violation by the prosecution. Defense Attorney David Shircliff argued the State knew about Monserrate Shirley's claim that Mark Leonard told her he'd removed the step-down regulator from the gas line long before they disclosed it to the defense.

Deputy Prosecutor Mark Hollingsworth pointed to documents from pre-trial depositions that showed otherwise, and called the motion "completely inappropriate." He said they found out about Shirley's claim at the same time the defense did. Hollingsworth also pointed to the fact that Shirley continually called it a "step-down valve" instead of a regulator, saying that supported Shirley's claim that she didn't understand why it was important or realize she needed to talk about it during her pre-trial interviews with authorities.

Judge Marnocha agreed with the prosecution, saying he found no deliberate discovery violation on the part of the State. At worst, it may go to Shirley's credibility as a witness, but he found no nefarious conduct by the prosecution.

The motion for mistrial was denied.

Resident Speaks

Stephen "Steve" Belt, one of the Richmond Hill residents, was not able to testify with the rest of the residents because his wife had just undergone surgery and required full-time care, so he was added onto Thursday's docket so jurors heard his experience, too.

At the time of the explosion, Belt lived at 8333 Alcona Drive with his wife, their daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter. All five of them were at home and had gone to bed at the time of the blast. Belt's wife was in bed but still awake and talking on the phone at the moment of the explosion.

She saw the ceiling go up about six inches or so. Belt said he actually suffered "an episode of confusion," or some kind of shock because of the blast.

After recovering, they made sure the rest of the family was okay then started heading out of the house.

When they went outside, he said "it was such a surreal scene. There was still stuff floating down. My wife, she actually heard the person that lost their life asking for help."

The blast wave hit the southwest corner of their home and twisted it. He described one of the house's walls as "just mush, just barely standing." The roof was also ripped off from the rest of the house and was left simply resting on the rest of the frame. The house as a whole "was pretty much obliterated," and had to be demolished.

Insurance valued the damage at $200,000.

Looking Ahead

Robinson told reporters after court that Mark Duckworth himself is among the witnesses she will call next week, along with more from the lead detective in the case.

Judge John Marnocha told jurors before dismissing them for the week that he estimates testimony will wrap up next week. Up until this point, he has avoided hearing testimony on Fridays, but said if Friday testimony is needed to make sure the last of the witnesses gets called next week, he will schedule it.

If that timeline holds, deliberations could begin as early as Monday, July 13.

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.