FORT WAYNE, Ind. (Sept. 22, 2015)-- Wednesday morning, a Fort Wayne judge will hear arguments about whether Richmond Hill suspect Bob Leonard Jr.'s own words will be heard against him in court.
Leonard will go on trial in January for the fatal natural gas explosion that rocked a south side Indianapolis neighborhood and killed two people nearly three years ago.
Mark Leonard was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole on virtually the same evidence his half-brother will face in Judge Frances Gull’s courtroom.
The trials of the Leonard brothers were moved out of Indianapolis due to extensive media coverage and the challenge of finding jurors who did not have a personal exposure to the explosion.
During a preliminary hearing Tuesday morning, Judge Gull was told by the defense and prosecution that both sides had found common ground on several motions regarding trial logistics and evidence.
“We agreed on photographs and the 911 or Xfinity call to follow the rulings of Judge (John) Marnocha in South Bend, so basically there is a compromise there,” said Marion County Deputy Prosecutor Denise Robinson who secured Mark Leonard’s conviction this summer in St. Joseph Superior Court. “Scene photos will be admissible. Autopsy photos will not be admitted or attempt to be admitted. And as far as the Xfinity call, all will be admitted except for the very end of it.”
The compromise means jurors will see photographs depicting the recovery of the bodies of Jennifer and Dion Longworth who lived next door to 8349 Fieldfare Way on November 10, 2012.
The home was owned by Monserrate Shirley, Mark Leonard’s girlfriend, and was destroyed in an insurance fraud explosion that caused $4.4 million in losses to more than 80 homes.
As his house was crashing in around him, Dion Longworth was trapped in the basement and spoke on the phone with a home security specialist.
“The end of the xfinity call is fairly dramatic with Mr. Longworth dying so that will be admitted at the life without parole proceedings if we get to that,” said Robinson, "But it won’t be admitted in the case.”
Yet to be argued before and decided by the judge is a statement Bob Leonard, Jr., made to an IMPD detective within weeks of the blast before he was an official suspect.
“The statement is certainly not a confession,” said Robinson. “There are some things that Bob Leonard says that will be made public tomorrow that I can’t really talk about today. But during the course of that, that was at a time when Bob Leonard was not considered a suspect in this particular case. It was before the filing of the criminal charges, a month before the filing of any criminal charges, and Bob Leonard was being questioned primarily about Mark Leonard, but there were some things about Bob Leonard’s knowledge as well.”
Prosecutors charge that Bob Leonard, Jr., refined his half-brother’s plot to destroy the home and set a timing device on a microwave oven to trigger the explosion.
Lawyers representing Bob Leonard, Jr., refused comment as they left the Allen County Courthouse.
“Bob Leonard’s attorneys believe it should be suppressed because of Bob Leonard’s request for an attorney,” said Robinson. “From the State’s perspective, the response that we filed is that he was not a suspect, he was not in custody, in fact he was told repeatedly that he would be taken home and he was free to leave and therefore any admissions or knowledge, bits of knowledge he claimed to have had at that time, we believe should be admissible.”
While Leonard retains the right to not testify at his trial, though his words may be repeated for the jury, the defendant spoke to reporters as he was being led in shackles through a courthouse subterranean tunnel by sheriff’s deputies on the way to his hearing.
“Ask the Tony Burnett witness if he saw this thing on Saturday,” said Leonard, pointing to his limping leg and referring to a neighbor who said he saw the co-conspirator at Shirley’s house hours before the blast. “I’ve had it for five years. I’m not the person who was there.”
Tuesday marked the first time Leonard walked before reporters with a noticeable limp.
During the hearing Leonard appeared to scowl and cup his hand to his right ear to better listen to the proceedings.
Shirley has already guilty and will be sentenced after testifying against the other accused conspirators as she did against her ex-boyfriend.
Gary Thompson, who is charged with accompanying Bob Leonard, Jr., to the Shirley house, and Glenn Hults, who is accused of offering to keep Shirley’s items safe from the blast, are yet to go to trial.
Mark Leonard is housed at the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.
Judge Gull agreed to follow many of the rulings already set down by Judge Marnocha in the Mark Leonard trial.
“Some parts of the trial will be very similar,” said Robinson. “The witness testimony, victim testimony, will be substantially similar. Some parts that the jurors heard in Mark Leonard won’t be heard here at all.”
Evidence that Mark Leonard conspired to have a witness against him killed while he was inside the Marion County Jail will not be revealed during his half-brother’s trial.
“On the other hand we have some witnesses against Bob Leonard that the South Bend jury never heard,” said Robinson. “So parts of it will be identical, some of it will be similar and some of it will be brand new.”
Judge Gull said she expects the trial to begin next January 19, last as long as five weeks, and follow a Tuesday through Friday schedule.
Mark Leonard’s trial lasted seven weeks as jurors heard from more than 100 witnesses and viewed in excess of 2000 pieces of evidence.