Final witness testifies in Richmond Hill trial, ending testimony

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

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (July 8, 2015)– On the day when its expected testimony will end in the Richmond Hill trial, attorneys representing lead defendant Mark Leonard raised doubts about the plea agreement reached with the suspect’s former girlfriend, and they unearthed a key piece of testimony against their client.

Live blog: Go inside the courtroom with CBS4.

The State rested its case at 11:46 a.m.

The Defense concluded its presentation three hours later.

Leonard is accused of concocting the insurance fraud plot to destroy Monserrate Shirley’s home in a natural gas explosion on November 10, 2012, which killed two people.

Defense counsel spent the morning cross examining Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department (IMPD) Sgt. Jeff Wager, the primary homicide detective on the case, about his investigation and interviews with their client’s co-conspirators.

Shirley, Bob Leonard, Jr., Glenn Hults and Gary Thompson were also charged with participating in the arson conspiracy.

Mark Leonard (left) and Bob Leonard, Jr. (right)

Mark Leonard (left) and Bob Leonard, Jr. (right)

Shirley reached a plea agreement with prosecutors in January of this year and agreed to testify against her co-defendants in exchange for reduced charges.

Attorney Diane Black quizzed Wager about Shirley’s proffer statement in that she promised to tell the truth.

The Defense has argued that Shirley’s testimony regarding Leonard’s claim that he disposed of a key natural gas safety valve was raised late in the game and should be stricken from the record or viewed with suspicion since it was never raised during any previous interviews or during the proffer statement.

Maxitrol gas regulator

Maxitrol gas regulator

The State claims that Shirley’s recollection about Leonard’s admission that he discarded the “step down valve,” which is more properly referred to as a Maxitrol regulator as it controls the amount of natural gas pumped into a home, was known by the Defense during depositions taken after her plea agreement was filed with Marion Superior Court.

Black asked Wager why he didn’t ask Shirley about the step down regulator during the initial Proffer Statement interview.

“We were trying to get an overview and we just wanted a basic knowledge,” said Wager.

Black then revealed it was the Defense counsel that unearthed what could potentially be one of the key pieces of testimony against their client.

Monserrate Shirley

Monserrate Shirley

“But oddly enough in the April 9 deposition…we ask Miss Shirley, ‘and you don’t have any knowledge about a valve being removed anywhere?’ We asked that question.”

Leonard’s attorneys have spent most of their cross-examination during the 20 days of testimony not necessarily determining reasonable doubt about their client’s participation in the scheme but rather Shirley’s guilt and the conditions of her Plea Agreement that are not available to the lead suspect.

The Prosecution turned down an offer from Leonard’s attorneys in February to plead guilty to reduced charges that would carry a sentence of approximately 50 years.

“Because of pitchforks and torches, Mark Leonard was not offered a plea,” said Black, referring to the public outrage over the Richmond Hill case.

Diane Black (Sketch by Dave Blodgett)

Diane Black (Sketch by Dave Blodgett)

Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson objected to that characterization of the State’s plea agreement strategy and Black rested her cross-examination.

Shirley pleaded guilty to two felony arson charges that carry penalties of 20 to 50 years in prison.

After more than two-and-a-half years of investigation and preparation, the State rested.

Black called IMPD Detective Aaron Carter to the stand as Leonard’s first witness.

Carter interviewed Shirley in the days after the explosion when she professed to have no knowledge of the origins of the blast that obliterated her house.

The detective said, “it did strike me as odd,” that Shirley boarded the family cat, Snowball, the weekend of the explosion.

Prosecutors contend Shirley took steps such as saving the pet or removing her valuables from the home before the explosion to minimize her personal losses from the anticipated fire.

Photo of the Shirley home from a real estate website before the explosion

Photo of the Shirley home from a real estate website before the explosion

Carter said Shirley told him that the perpetrators of the tragedy should go to jail “for life.”

On December 21, 2012, Shirley and Leonard were arrested after dropping off Brooke Shirley, her daughter, at a Greenwood parochial school.

“She was upset from the time the handcuffs went on,” said Carter.

Carter was the only witness for the Defense, though Leonard’s attorney introduced a portion of a taped television interview with Shirley in which FOX59 News participated on November 12, 2012, two days after the explosion.

“Oh, my gosh, I started screaming,” Shirley told FOX59’s Aishah Hasnie, recalling her reaction when she received a phone call from a neighbor advising her that there had been an explosion.

Shirley and Leonard were waiting, argued prosecutors, for word of the success of their plot at the Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg.

“I went and got Mark and, ‘We gotta go! We gotta go! and he thought somebody that did something to me in the bathroom or something because he didn’t know when I walked away and took the phone call and I said the whole neighborhood blew up and then the people from the hotel started running and then the people from the hotel help us to get our luggage and brought our car to us and then we drove through it non-stop probably 100 miles an hour.”

Shirley and Leonard arrived later at Mary Bryan Elementary School near her former home where they joined other evacuees from Richmond Hill and were spotted by a FOX59 photographer.

A FOX59 camera captured images of Monserrate Shirley and Mark Leonard after the blast.

A FOX59 camera captured images of Monserrate Shirley and Mark Leonard after the blast.

In that interview, which was introduced into evidence by the Defense, Shirley described Leonard as, “a very handy man,” for the work he did replacing a thermostat in the house the week earlier in what investigators say was a failed attempt to rig a triggering device for the explosion.

The Prosecution’s efforts to find Leonard guilty of felony murder, which requires a jury to determine the Defendant should have known his actions would cause death even if that wasn’t his intention, suffered a setback Wednesday with the testimony of a fire investigation expert.

Steve Shand of Shand Forensics testified that he determined gasoline had been splashed about Shirley’s house in the kitchen and living room, an indication of arson, however, he doubted it was the Leonard brothers intent to cause an explosion so large it would devastate the neighborhood and kill the people next door.

Steve Shand

Steve Shand

“They didn’t have a clue what they were doing,” said Shand who indicated it would be nearly impossible to recreate in the laboratory the conditions that existed and the results that occurred that night on Fieldfare Way. “They got lucky.” 

For the Shirley house to explode, there needed to be a proper natural gas-to-air mixture of between 5-15 percent in the immediate vicinity of the ignitor, in this case, a microwave oven with a timer set to go off at 11:10 p.m.

The State’s pursuit of a life without parole sentence for Leonard, if he is convicted, is predicated on the felony murder charge, though St. Joseph Superior Judge John Marnocha is likely to instruct jurors on lesser included offenses, which could result in a felony conviction of reckless homicide that carries a lesser prison term.

For one of the rare times during the trial, Mark Leonard’s voice was heard in the basement courtroom of the St. Joseph County Courthouse as Judge Marnocha asked if he agreed with his attorneys that he was choosing not to testify in his own defense.

“Yes, sir,” Leonard replied.

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