Jurors in Richmond Hill trial to hear from final witnesses

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (July 5, 2015)-- After more than two-and-a-half years of investigation and courtroom maneuvering, jurors in the Richmond Hill case are ready to hear the last witnesses in the prosecution of lead defendant Mark Leonard.

Leonard is accused of conceiving of the insurance fraud scheme that resulted in a November 10, 2012, explosion in a south side Indianapolis neighborhood, damaging or destroying 80 homes and killing two people.

While incarcerated inside the Marion County Jail, Leonard is accused of arranging for the murder of a witness against him.

Leonard didn't know it, but he was negotiating with an undercover federal agent masquerading as a hit man.

Prosecutors contend the "hit man" plan was part of the ongoing Richmond Hill conspiracy that started in December of 2011 when Leonard first sought to convince his girlfriend Monserrate Shirley to raise the coverage level on her homeowner's insurance.

"This defendant is not on trial for that crime," said John Tompkins, an Indianapolis defense attorney who does not represent any of the Richmond Hill co-conspirators. "How they connect it to the ongoing conspiracy when none of the other people involved in the gas explosion conspiracy were part of trying to hire this person to allegedly kill somebody, again, may confuse the jury and may cause some jurors to say, 'Wait a minute, that does not add up to me, none of these other people are involved in this conspiracy, how is it a continuation of that conspiracy?'"

Robert Smith (left) and Denise Robinson (right) (Sketch by Dave Blodgett)

Robert Smith (left) and Denise Robinson (right) (Sketch by Dave Blodgett)

The jury in St. Joseph Superior Court heard from Robert Smith, a jailhouse informant with a lengthy criminal record, who said Leonard asked his help in finding a hired killer to take out Mark Duckworth, a friend whom the Richmond Hill mastermind confided in.

Tompkins said jurors may evaluate the State's strategy in turning to a man the defense referred to as, "a snitch."

"You're getting yourself right next to a convicted criminal who has a dog in the fight who wants a deal, who wants to get something out of their testimony, and you may discredit your case depending on how well he does on the stand and the jury perceives you may have given him too good a deal or given him too much for what he's provided."

Leonard's attorneys will make a similar argument to discredit the testimony of Monserrate Shirley, their client's former girlfriend, who took the stand to point the conspiracy finger at her ex-lover.

Shirley pleaded guilty to lesser charges and faces a shorter prison sentence when she eventually finishes testifying against her former partners in crime and Tompkins said jurors will take that into consideration.

"This gives them a chance to say, 'This is a less credible person. I may believe some of it but not all of it. Why do they need these people? Isn't there enough other evidence? They must think they need something more and this is how they get it?'"

Also slated to testify this week are officials of State Farm Insurance Company who will tell jurors that Shirley hiked the coverage on her Fieldfare Way home to $300,000, and a relative of Leonard's who will claim that valuables from Shirley's demolished house were spotted in the back of the suspect's van days after the blast.

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