Witness testimony in Richmond Hill trial to resume Monday

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Sketch of Mark Leonard (left) and Defense Attorney David Shircliff in court. (Sketch by Dave Blodgett)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (June 12, 2015)– The first week of the Mark Leonard trial in a South Bend courtroom began with jury selection and an admission from the Defense. It concluded with Richmond Hill residents pointing out Leonard in the courtroom and putting the defendant near the scene of the crime.

Leonard faces 53 counts including murder, arson, conspiracy and insurance fraud for the November, 2012, blast that destroyed the home of his girlfriend Monserrate Shirley, damaged or destroyed 80 homes at a cost of $4 million and killed neighbors Dion and Jennifer Longworth.

The most stunning evidence included police and fire dispatch tapes of the first crews to respond to the southside Indianapolis neighborhood moments after the explosion and the futile attempt to save Dion Longworth as his flaming home crashed in around him.

Leonard’s trial was moved to St. Joseph Superior Court due to extensive pre-trial publicity in Indianapolis and the difficulty in seating a jury that did not have a personal reference to the case.

The panel of six men and six women was reduced by one after the first day of testimony as Judge John Marnocha announced one juror suffered, “a personal tragedy,” and was excused. Five alternates are now left to observe the expected six week trial.

Before the opening statements, defense attorneys were defeated in their attempt to have evidence of a Leonard murder-for-hire plan excluded from this case.

David Shircliff and Diann Black argued unsuccessfully that introduction of what they called the “hit man” plot and a jailhouse informant whom Leonard confided in would prematurely convict their client, leaving jurors to conclude he must guilty to attempt to have a witness killed.

Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson contended that the scheme, uncovered in March of 2013, three  months after Leonard and his alleged co-conspirators were jailed, is evidence of the ongoing conspiracy which she said did not end with the explosion on Fieldfare Way.

Judge Marnocha agreed despite a successful Defense attempt to spoil the first day of Jury Selection with reference to the plot and the Court’s subsequent inability to seat any jurors from that pool.

Once the judge issued strict instructions to avoid specific references to the Hit Man allegations, voir dire was completed by Monday afternoon.

During open statements, Robinson told the jury that November 10, 2012, was a “gorgeous fall day” that concluded for many Richmond Hill residents with a night of watching Notre Dame football in a nationally televised game.

The peace of that night, said Robinson, was shattered by a blast so large it was heard in neighboring Johnson and Shelby Counties to the south and southeast of Indianapolis.

When it was Black’s turn to address the jury, Leonard’s lead attorney admitted that her client was involved in a, “stupid and selfish insurance fraud,” which led to the explosion and, seemingly, the unintended deaths of his girlfriend’s neighbors. Black also referred to the Hit Man plot as an “absurd” attempt to kill one of Leonard’s friends in the mistaken belief that one witness’ testimony would be the key to the State’s case.

Robinson previously told jurors that Indiana law allows for the conviction of murder charges whether a defendant either intended to kill his or her victims or should have reasonably known that such actions, while not intended, could result in death.

She also told the jury that the State’s case relied on multiple witnesses and pieces of evidence, including expected testimony by Shirley who reached a plea agreement with prosecutors earlier this year.

What followed was dramatic testimony that found veteran firefighters and a police officer choking up on the witness stand as they recalled the scene they encountered that night. Neighbors also told stories of a blast that literally shook some out of their beds.

“We’ve got one house down. We have two others severely damaged and possibly two other migrant,” the jury heard one of the first firefighters on the scene report to an IFD dispatcher. “Command, rush! We’ve got a man trapped in the back! We need hoses back here now to protect him so we can get him out!”

Lt. Russell Futrell urgently called for help to save the life of Dion Longworth.

Resident Frank Hiatt, the first Richmond Hill neighbor to arrive at Ground Zero that night, said looking at the remnants of what was 8349 Fieldfare Way, “It gave me the impression I was standing at Death.”

On Wednesday, Walter Corbett, a military veteran, said the blast reminded him of the time in Afghanistan when an insurgent tried to blow up his base.

Craig Fall recalled seeing his wife and children screaming on the couch minutes after the explosion.

Matt Lennon grabbed a wrench and went through the neighborhood turning off gas lines to halt the potential spread of the fire.

And then jurors heard from IMPD Detective Shawn Looper, a veteran homicide and child abuse investigator.

Looper testified that he was home that night, in shorts and a t-shirt, in another section of the Richmond Hill community, when he heard the explosion, checked on his family and then grabbed his firearm and police radio and drove the Fieldfare Way in an unmarked police car.

“There was debris everywhere,” he told the jury. “I could smell natural gas.”

At that moment only Looper represented law and order in what appeared to be an urban war zone.

“We got one trapped in the house that’s burning,” jurors heard Looper report to a police dispatcher. “The second house that’s burning we got a person trapped.”

Shirley’s house obliterated, Looper made his way next door to 8355 Fieldfare Way which was on fire and partially collapsed.

“We got a man trapped in the back here, he’s screaming,” Looper reported. “We need fire apparatus. We’ve got a firemen trying to go in now.”

The detective took several moments to compose himself on the witness stand before he told jurors he couldn’t heed a firefighter’s plea for assistance to pull Dion Longworth from the crawl space where he was trapped as his flaming home fell down around him.

It was just too hot for a cop in shorts and a t-shirt, said Looper.

Thursday, day four, brought more neighbors to the witness stand.

One woman said she panicked because she wanted to protect her children but didn’t know what she was protecting them from.

A mother said she feared an armed killer was running through her streets.

One witness wondered if it was “Armageddon time” and the end of the world had come.

Another said, “I ran through rubble that was up to my knees,” and then the losses were totaled up for the homes damaged or destroyed.

Ryan Konecky said his home was demolished at a cost of $300,000.

Ironically, prosecutors said that is the same amount Leonard thought his fraud against State Farm Insurance would net himself and Shirley, and he had been shopping on-line for a Ferrari to buy the day his payoff came.

Through it all, Leonard sits impassively between his two attorneys, free of the shackles he must wear every time his jail cell door is opened for the trip to court, showing no reaction to the 8″ by 10″ color photographs, often taken on a sparkling blue day, of the damaged homes and lives his admitted handiwork left behind.

Shircliff and Black typically ask no follow up questions of witnesses during cross-examination save for the occasional inquiry as to whether the residents ever spotted Shirley in the days after the blast or during televised interviews when she tearfully pleaded that she, too, was a victim.

Doug Aldridge said he saw Shirley and Leonard at Mary Bryan Elementary School hours after the explosion. That’s where residents were evacuated to once police determined their neighborhood was too dangerous to stay in that night.

Elizabeth Kelley testified that a couple days later she spotted Shirley in the passenger seat of a car in the subdivision.

“I lived in the house right there,” Kelley recalled Shirley saying. “All the neighbors are saying such horrible things about me.”

Kelley said she told Shirley she was a victim also and then the women prayed together. Kelley told the Court there was someone else in the car with Shirley that day.

“Is that person in the courtroom today?” Robinson asked Kelley.

The woman who lost her own home at a cost of $237,000 pointed to the defense table and the man sitting between two attorneys.

“He’s sitting right there, wearing a blue and yellow tie and a suit,” said Kelley.

When Mark Leonard comes into the courtroom in chains before jurors see him everyday, he’s often wearing a dark suit and a white shirt and stripped tie so the jury won’t see him as the jail inmate he has been since December 21, 2012.

Two witnesses have now placed Leonard in and near the Richmond Hill community in the hours and days after the natural gas blast that leveled his girlfriend’s home and nearly took an entire neighborhood with it.

When testimony resumes Monday afternoon, jurors will hear from more residents, those closer in proximity to Shirley’s house and who know what went on on Fieldfare Way during that “gorgeous fall day” before the sky filled with flaming debris.

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