Leonard preliminary hearing sets stage for trial in Richmond Hill house explosion case

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Mark Leonard

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (June 3, 2015) — Defendant Mark Leonard entered a St. Joseph County courtroom in shackles and an orange jail jumpsuit to sit between two attorneys and attend the final preliminary hearing before his trial in the Richmond Hill house explosion case begins.

Leonard is accused of masterminding the plot to destroy girlfriend Monserrate Shirley’s south side house in a natural gas blast Nov. 10, 2012.

Prosecutors said Leonard’s plot exceeded beyond all expectations, leveling Shirley’s home and destroying the home of neighbors Jennifer and Dion Longworth who died in the fire.

Eighty homes were damaged or destroyed and losses totaled more than $4 million.

The State claims Leonard and Shirley were in pursuit of a $300,000 insurance claim that would have bailed the homeowner out of desperate financial straits and bought her boyfriend a Ferrari.

The trial was moved to Judge John Marnocha’s South Bend courtroom when the prosecution found it would be impossible to seat a jury that either had not been exposed to media coverage of the case or did not have a personal connection to the community.

Marnocha said he would ask four basic questions of the 140 potential jurors who will be called to his courtroom this week:

  1. What is main source of news for the potential juror?
  2. Have they heard about this case?
  3. Have they discussed this case with anyone who has personal knowledge of the case?
  4. Do they know anyone who lives in Marion County?

The judge also referred to the 2013 fatal drunk driving trial of IMPD Officer David Bisard that was moved to Fort Wayne and the questions Judge John Surbeck asked jurors every morning to make sure they had not been exposed to information about the trail from outside the courtroom.

Defense attorney David Shircliff refiled a motion to prohibit informant Robert Smith from testifying against his client regarding Leonard’s alleged attempt from inside the Marion County Jail to hire a hit man to kill a witness.

Shircliff previously argued that Smith was an actor on behalf of the State.

Marnocha indicated that he was inclined to permit Smith’s testimony because prosecutors seek to prove the murder-for-hire plot was part of the ongoing conspiracy but was holding off a final decision.

Deputy prosecutor Denise Robinson told the Court that Shirley will be asked to testify about Leonard’s alleged intimidation that led her to participate in the plot.

The defense sought to exclude the introduction of fire dispatch audio tapes which would portray the death of neighbor Dion Longworth as firefighters struggled unsuccessfully to rescue him from the fire and building collapse that took his life in the minutes after the blast.

Defense attorney Diane Black said to play such a tape would be emotionally prejudicial to Leonard’s case and would portray events that firefighters would be expected to testify to.

Black also argued that Shirley should not be allowed to testify about alleged physical abuse or intimidation, though Deputy prosecutor Mark Hollingsworth told the judge that Shirley would tell jurors that she followed Leonard’s directions because “I was afraid” and a friend of Shirley’s would so testify.

Marnocha indicated that autopsy photographs would likely be shown to jurors while asking if he would be able to listen to the IFD tapes that would portray Dion Longworth’s death.

Robinson referred to jailhouse letters written by Leonard during his stay in the Marion County Jail as potential evidence that will be introduced.

Jury selection is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Thursday.

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