Neighbor says Richmond Hill suspect Bob Leonard Jr. was not at blast site
FORT WAYNE, Ind. (Jan. 27, 2016) — A key prosecution witness told jurors in the Bob Leonard Jr. trial that he did not see the Richmond Hill co-conspirator at the house that blew up on November 10, 2012, killing two neighbors in an insurance fraud scheme.
Leonard is accused of setting a microwave oven timer that triggered the explosion in the house full of natural gas at 8349 Fieldfare Way.
Prosecutors think Leonard was at the south side Indianapolis home several hours before the blast which occurred shortly after 11 p.m.
Tony Burnett testified that approximately nine hours earlier, he spotted lead conspirator Mark Leonard’s white Ford van parked outside the home of his girlfriend Monserrate Shirley.
“I saw basically two folks, one of them was the taller one who was standing in the area of the garage and the front door looking like he was talking on a cell phone,” said Burnett. “I saw the shorter of them look like he was exiting the home but at that point the door was closed and it looked like his hand was on the doorknob and it looked like they were pulling the door closed and they basically rushed to the van and rushed out of there.”
Burnett said both men had dark hair and were younger than middle age.
Bob Leonard Jr., 57, wears glasses and has gray hair.
“He doesn’t really look like the persons I saw,” Burnett told CBS4 after his testimony. “And when I saw Bob Leonard in person it was like, ‘No, this is not the guy.’”
Burnett told the jury that the men he saw resembled Bob Leonard’s son Justin Leonard, who will testify that his father gave him Mark Leonard’s possessions from the Shirley house to hold after the explosion, and David Gill, who was implicated in previous insurance fraud schemes with Mark Leonard.
Prosecutors contend investigators found Bob Leonard’s DNA on the door to Shirley’s house and in his half-brother’s vehicle.
Leonard told CBS4 during phone interviews from inside the Allen County and Marion County jails that he had visited the Shirley house in the weeks before the explosion and had also been in the white van.
The defendant also criticized his own attorneys, claiming they would not call a cell phone expert witness who could prove Leonard’s cell phone was not present in the Richmond Hill area on the day of the explosion.
To bolster its case of conspiracy, the State will call Arthur Kirkpatrick, an employee of Citizens Energy, who will testify that the Leonard brothers engaged him in a conversation exploring the explosive power of natural gas the day before the blast.
Following adjournment Wednesday, Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson told CBS4 that while Burnett’s testimony was not a surprise, jurors will hear evidence tying Leonard to the heart of the conspiracy that has not been heard in either this case or the trial against Mark Leonard.
During the opening days of the trial in an ornate third floor courtroom in the Allen County courthouse where the case was moved due to extensive media coverage, scores of neighbors have testified about what it was like that night when many thought a bomb had gone off or a plane had crashed into their community.
Mark Leonard was convicted of 54 charges last summer and sentenced to life without parole while Shirley testified against her former lover and will take the stand against his half-brother in exchange for guilty pleas to lesser charges.
Resident Jeannine Allen recalled hearing “a really loud explosion” and said, “I was one of the first ones to run out and look at the fire.”
Standing in a backyard on Fieldfare Way, Allen looked across the street and watched as four houses burned while one of them, Shirley’s home, was obliterated by the blast.
Ryan Konecky told jurors that the ceiling of his home caved in and a wooden I-beam from Shirley’s house flew across the yard, penetrated his walls and speared a couch where he sat on an opposite end from his wife.
Konecky said he was covered with blood from a cut to the head and struggled through the damaged home to rescue his children.
The family dog Sierra died after a wall collapsed; renovation crews discovered the pet’s body days later.
Konecky testified that he had noticed the smell of natural gas while walking along Fieldfare Way in the week before the explosion which, prosecutors claim, fits the timetable of an earlier failed attempt to destroy Shirley’s home with an intentional gas leak.
Bryan Hollingsworth recalled for jurors his futile attempts to save Dion Longworth who died along with his wife Jennifer in the home next door to the Shirley residence.
“’What can I do to help this trapped man?’” Hollingsworth remembered thinking as he spotted Longworth entombed feet below ground level in his burning basement. He spied the doomed man through a basketball size hole in the debris.
“We could hear him running around in there,” said Hollingsworth “He was pretty bloody.”
Hollingsworth said he kept talking to Longworth to divert his attention from the fire consuming the home.
“I did not want him to see the glow of the fire coming up behind him.”
Hollingsworth described the heat from the flames as several times more intense than the temperature a chef would experience opening up the hood on a backyard gas grill.
The neighbor was eventually moved back from the flaming home by firefighters who struggled in vain to save Longworth.
“We were the last people to talk to him.”
Hollingsworth said his wife likely suffered a concussion in the blast and he still feels the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because of what he went through that night, as does his dog.
“The house swayed back and forth,” Nicole Cochrell said, recalling the night of blast when she lay in bed with her son. “All the windows in front of me were blown in.”
Losing virtually everything but her clothes, Cochrell said her home was demolished and rebuilt nine months later.
Alex Pflanzer lived across the street from the Shirley home the night of the explosion.
“When I came to, there was chaos, alarm system going off, glass all over us.”
Pflanzer, dressed only in boxer shorts, grabbed a gun and ran out into the street, prepared to meet a burglar invading his home. His house a total loss, the pet cat traumatized, Pflanzer described the year his family lived in apartment waiting for their home to be rebuilt as “a tough time.”
Throughout the testimony Leonard sat at the defense table, listening intently, a perpetual scowl on his face as his attorneys typically passed on cross examination of the witnesses.
Daniel Able lived across Fieldfare Way from the Shirley house and told jurors he took his dog for a walk on the morning of the blast when he noticed, out of the ordinary, that the home seemed closed up with no activity and Mark Leonard’s van, typically parked outside, was missing.
But not for long.
At approximately 10:30 a.m., almost eleven hours before the explosion, Able spotted a large Ford van which he said “strongly resembled” Mark Leonard’s work vehicle in the neighborhood.
“I saw a white van drive by,” said Able. “I didn’t notice who was in the van.”
Able identified a photograph of Leonard’s van as one he typically saw at Shirley’s house and spotted that morning.
Defense Attorney Mark Inman, on cross examination, noted the van, “is as generic as it comes.”
Prosecutors contend Bob Leonard Jr. was in that van that day.
Able said he first noticed Mark Leonard’s presence in the neighborhood early in 2012, a few months after he moved into Shirley’s house, and his arrival was accompanied by the roar of late night motorcycle engines and a steady stream of cars visiting the address.
The State claims in the weeks before the blast, Leonard, along with half-brother by his side, refined his plan to fill the home with natural gas, seal the residence to concentrate the buildup and then set a trigger to mix a spark with the gas and oxygen to create the fireball.
Another man, Gary Thompson, is alleged to have accompanied the Leonard brothers in their planning and the execution of the plot.
Bob Leonard told CBS4 News that Thompson, whose trial is set for later this year in Indianapolis, claimed in a police statement that the co-defendants have never met.
Shirley testified during Mark Leonard’s trial that not only was Bob Leonard in on the plot, he chastised her after the tragedy, belittling her concerns over the explosion’s deadly toll.
Leonard told CBS4 News that Shirley lied about his alleged involvement to curry favor with prosecutors in pursuit of a plea agreement.
Following a closed door hearing before Allen Superior Judge Frances Gull last week, Leonard, who angered his attorneys with phone calls to reporters, has stopped reaching out to the media and indicated he was ordered not to talk by the judge.