Richmond Hill trial: 'They had no idea what they were doing'

Monserrate Shirley (left), Mark Leonard (middle) and Robert Leonard (right)

A prosecution witness may have helped the defense make a piece of their case.

Steve Shand, founder and lead investigator at Shand Forensics, told the jury that while the explosion was intentional, he does not believe the suspects necessarily intended for it to be as bad as it turned out to be, which has been the defense's stance all along.

"No idea what they were doing"

Shand first told the jury, "There was absolutely no question: we were looking at a very large explosion....It almost looked like a tornado went through."

He and his team spent five days on-site after the explosion, then left for a few weeks while criminal investigators processed the scene. They returned December 10 and stayed another 11 days. In that time, they never removed any evidence from the scene other than the core samples they took of concrete at Monserrate Shirley's home as well as comparative samples taken from two other homes in the neighborhood.

The core samples are four-inch circular samples taken from the concrete foundation because, in the words of Shand's son and colleague Skip Shand, concrete "is like a sponge - if there's any liquid accelerant that had been on it, it would have been soaked up, so the concrete can be tested for that."

They didn't just pick a random spot to take the sample from; they looked for an area that had what Steve Shand described as an irregular burn pattern. Because the entire home had just gone through an explosion, there were burn marks in several places, so Shand's team was focusing on patterns that were different than those seen on the rest of the concrete and flooring. The different pattern could indicate the presence of an accelerant like gasoline.

Craig Balliet, the chemist who ran the tests on the core samples collected by Shand and his colleagues, said he found gas residue on two of the samples - one that was taken from the garage and another from the southeast corner of the living room. The gas in the garage could potentially be explained by the gas can that stored fuel for Monserrate Shirley's lawn mower, or a leak from one of their three vehicles, though the garage is also the first place they discussed trying to start the fire, according to Shirley's testimony last week.

While Balliet confirmed gas in the concrete foundation in those two locations, he could not say how long it had been there because once gas gets into concrete, it can stay there for years and there is no way to date it.

While taking their core samples, Shand's team found evidence of two fires burning simultaneously - one in the kitchen and another in the living room. He said two accidental fires never burn simultaneously on the same property. That, in addition to the gasoline found in the core samples, led Shand to tell the insurance company the explosion was incendiary (intentional).

During cross-examination, though, he also said the suspects "had no idea what they were doing," saying there was no way they could have deliberately calculated the right gas-to-oxygen ratio needed to cause the explosion that happened. He attributed the size and scope of the explosion instead to "a perfect storm" of environmental factors the suspects would have had no control over.

"I don't think they had the mentality to do something like this," he testified. "It is a perfect storm. They used enough natural gas and they introduced gasoline."

Blast waves and microwaves

Prosecutors kept Michael Eggleston, an ATF explosives enforcement officer, more focused on the microwave.

He described the blast wave as "extremely large and extremely violent," but also said that "in this case, it was obvious something beyond a simple destructive device was involved," because he found no evidence of a traditional destructive device or bomb anywhere in the rubble. He insisted that if a bomb or other destructive device had been used, he would have been able to find it in the rubble.

That conclusion supported previous testimony from local investigators.

Eggleston testified that based on the blast area and the direction debris was thrown, it was clear to him that the explosion centered in the kitchen. He stopped short of saying the microwave was the source, but did say that "all [the other kitchen appliances] had visible blast and thermal damage, but not to the extent of the microwave."

A juror asked if he had ever seen a microwave used to start an explosion before. He said no, but this microwave would have been capable of doing so.

"How much would it take?"

Jurors also heard from Arthur Kirkpatrick, a former valve regulator mechanic for Citizens Energy and part-owner of the Gas Light Inn bar.

Kirkpatrick told the jury that on the night before the explosion, Mark and Bob Leonard came into the Gas Light Inn to eat and drink, but then also started asking him questions about natural gas. They first asked what the difference is between natural gas and propane. He told them the biggest difference was the pressure it was stored and transported at. They then asked if the external regulator would still work even if there was a problem with the gas line inside the home. He told them yes.

Investigators previously testified about a shutoff valve missing from the fireplace starter - an essential pressure regulator missing from the home's interior gas pipe - and a second regulator located outside the home on the main gas line.

Finally, Bob asked - while Mark was still sitting with them - how much gas it would take to fill up a house. He told them that the gas would just keep flowing into the home until it blew up like an overfilled balloon.

Kirkpatrick had only met Bob Leonard once before that night, and had never met Mark. He was wearing his Citizens Energy shirt when they started asking about gas. He never asked them why they were asking him such questions because "I have people ask questions all the time."

Kirkpatrick then walked the jury through video surveillance from the bar showing the brothers walking in, sitting down to eat and their eventual conversation with Kirkpatrick.

During cross-examination, he admitted he did not tell the police about his conversation with the Leonards after the explosion, or even 11 days later when they first came asking him for his surveillance video on November 21. In fact, he didn't tell them for another eight days (November 29) after he'd had a chance to talk to a lawyer, which he said he did because he was scared of what Bob Leonard would do if he did tell police.

The white van

Kirkpatrick's testimony wasn't the only time Bob Leonard was the court's focus on Wednesday. One of Bob Leonard's neighbors, Whitney Essex, also took the stand.

Essex testified she saw the white van in Bob Leonard's driveway the night before the explosion and also around 3:00 a.m. Sunday morning.

She said she saw two white men - Bob Leonard and another she couldn't identify - moving things from the white van into Leonard's home. She saw similar activity off and on for the next two weeks, always late at night when it was too dark to see who was involved or what was being moved. Bob Leonard later told her it was just "personal items" of Mark's.

Shirley's neighbors have previously testified they saw the white van at Shirley's home hours before the explosion. Shirley herself testified that they took personal items from her home before the explosion and gave them to Bob Leonard for safe keeping.

Essex was at home when the search warrant was served on Bob's house and said she saw the golf clubs be removed from his home.

Defense motions

Testimony got off to a delayed start Wednesday so the judge could hear two motions from the defense.

First, attorney Diane Black moved to strike all testimony and exhibits from the master mechanic who testified Tuesday, saying he didn't qualify as an expert witness in the area prosecutors had him testify. The defense's main argument and prosecutors' response were filed with the court before Wednesday's hearing. Judge John Marnocha just responded to them during the hearing.

Judge Marnocha agreed with the defense that while Ed Nightingale is a master mechanic, that certification can be derived from any number of areas of expertise, but still said that while "it would seem to me he does not qualify as an 'expert witness'...he does qualify as a 'skilled witness'."

He also said Nightingale's opinion that the Cadillac was "being parted out" was up for debate, but said his overall testimony went to proving fraud since Mark Leonard and Monserrate Shirley told State Farm in the insurance claim it was in excellent condition before the explosion, so he denied the motion to strike Nightingale's testimony.

The defense's second motion was to prevent Michael Eggleston from testifying at all. Black argued that Eggleston specializes in explosives, and the ATF's own regulations do not list natural gas as an explosive material. She also said he was only on the scene of the explosion for less than 5 hours and was not asked to render an opinion regarding whether the explosion was caused by a destructive device. Black argued that despite his relatively minimal involvement in the case, jurors were likely to lend more weight to his testimony than others because of his title.

Eggleston said during the hearing that while the ATF does not list natural gas as an explosive material, that list is intended for the regulatory side of the bureau to establish proper procedures for storage and handling of explosive materials. In no way does it restrict him or others on the law enforcement side from investigating explosions or fires connected to natural gas.

Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson then argued that the amount of natural gas that poured into the residence, the damage that the microwave sustained compared to other kitchen appliances and the amount of thermal damage throughout the area makes this specific case fall under his area of expertise.

In the end, Judge Marnocha denied the defense's motion to prevent him from testifying entirely, but did preclude Eggleston from saying the explosion was intentional. He said that is a decision to be made by the jury so no witness should be allowed to say that on the stand.

A juror was also excused from the panel Wednesday because of a family health issue. She was the second juror to be dismissed so far in this trial, but there are still four alternate jurors available.

Looking ahead

That morning hearing on defense motions ran long enough the State was not able to completely wrap up their case Wednesday as they had originally thought they'd be able to do. Defense attorneys have said they only need roughly half a day to present their entire case, so if prosecutors rest by lunch Thursday, the defense could still potentially rest their case Thursday as well.

Lead police detective Jeff Wager will likely be the State's last witness to testify. He will wrap up the murder, arson, conspiracy and fraud case against Mark Leonard - a case prosecutors took two-and-a-half years to build and 18 days to present to the jury.

Before dismissing the jury for the day, Judge John Marnocha told them testimony was expected to wrap up Thursday and jurors would not be needed on Friday because he would spend that day discussing final jury instructions with the attorneys. That means closing arguments would be held Monday and the jury would begin deliberation Tuesday.

State law says that once a case has been turned over to the jury (when closing arguments are complete), they cannot separate, which means they will be sequestered in a hotel from Monday night until they reach a verdict.

Jurors were told to arrive by 9:15 Thursday morning to begin what is expected to be the final day of testimony.