FORT WAYNE, Ind. (Feb. 11, 2016) — Dabbing non-existent tears, her voice choking back emotion, Monserrate Shirley told jurors in a Fort Wayne courtroom about Bob Leonard Jr.’s entry into the ill-fated Richmond Hill insurance fraud plot that devastated a south side neighborhood in 2012 and killed two people in a natural gas explosion.
Leonard is accused of joining his half-brother Mark Leonard in the scheme to defraud Shirley’s insurance carrier out of a $300,000 settlement.
Shirley testified that Bob Leonard was promised $10,000 from the payoff proceeds, but the couple behind the blast was so broke that even the defendant’s request for a $1,200 down payment was rejected.
Bob Leonard was brought into the conspiracy after the first attempt to destroy Shirley’s home at 8349 Fieldfare Way failed in late October 2012. Shirley testified that on Nov. 1, 2012, Mark Leonard invited his half-brother to Shirley’s house to participate in the planning of a second attempt.
“’I have work for you to do, but I can’t tell you on the phone,’” Shirley recalled her boyfriend telling Bob Leonard.
Shirley identified Leonard for the jurors. She recalled Mark Leonard asking his half-brother if Shirley knew about the plot.
“’Yes, she knows,’” Shirley quoted Mark Leonard. “’She’s with us.’”
Leonard told her that his brother would do anything he asked. Deputy Prosecutor Mark Hollingsworth displayed for jurors two sets of golf clubs that belonged to Shirley’s ex-husband but were given to Bob Leonard in the days before the explosion.
Those clubs will be the focus of testimony Friday by Justin Leonard who will tell jurors he saw the sporting goods in the possession of his father after the blast. Shirley said she was upset Leonard gave her ex-husband’s clubs away.
On Nov. 3, Shirley said Mark Leonard picked up his half-brother and drove him to the couple’s house in a white Ford van that neighbors saw the day of the explosion. She testified that she watched her boyfriend turn on the fuel but not ignite the natural gas-fed fireplace in the presence of the defendant as she understood that a thermostat would later trip on and trigger the explosion.
Bob Leonard then drove away in the white van as Mark Leonard and Shirley, for the second weekend in a row, boarded their cat, arranged for Shirley’s daughter to spend the night with friends and headed to the Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg to await word of the plot’s success.
The second attempt, like the first, failed and set the stage for the third fatal stage that jurors will learn about during afternoon testimony.
Throughout her morning on the witness stand, Shirley cried as she testified in a soft-spoken accent that echoed of her upbringing in Puerto Rico.
A nurse by training, Shirley recalled moving into the Richmond Hill community in the mid-2000s and her struggle following a divorce to unsuccessfully emerge from bankruptcy and sell her home.
In the fall of 2011, weeks before meeting Mark Leonard, Shirley said she took her twice-mortgaged house off the market, wanting her then-12-year-old daughter to continue to grow up in the community because, “It was a safe place to live. I loved my neighbors.”
The explosion at Shirley’s house damaged or destroyed more than 80 homes and totaled in excess of $4 million in losses.
Neighbors Jennifer and Dion Longworth died in the explosion and subsequent fire.
“They didn’t deserve that,” said Shirley through sobs. “(Jennifer) always said, ‘Hi,’ to me when she went to the mailbox.”
Shirley walked jurors through her relationship with Mark Leonard, from the night he picked her up in a bar on Thompson Road almost exactly one year before the explosion, to his permanent arrival at her residence a month later, to his first comments about burning her house in February 2012 and to a refined plan that picked up speed and co-conspirators that summer and fall.
Leonard brought friends Glenn Hults and Gary Thompson into the plan, said Shirley, because of their experience with a previous arson fraud plot.
Shirley said that while initially expressing reservations about the scheme, she gradually agreed to go along with the conspiracy because, “I just did exactly what he told me to do because I was in love with him.”
Clad in an orange jail jumpsuit, Shirley admitted to jurors she was afraid Leonard would leave her if she didn’t participate.
Shirley said some prized possessions were cleared out of her house before the first failed attempt which Leonard blamed on Thompson’s lack of will, referring to his electrician friend as “a moron.”
“’You are a piece of ****,’” Shirley quoted Leonard calling Thompson. “’You didn’t do anything.’”
Shirley said that didn’t stop Leonard from bringing Thompson back into the house days later as she watched the men stuff cardboard up into the chimney flue to block escape of the natural gas that was expected to fuel the explosion during a second attempt that following weekend.
Leonard was intent on having Hults carry out the actual setting of the blast because “Glenn Hults owed Mark a favor.”
“I didn’t want to do this,” Shirley said but Leonard, “wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer.”
It was at that point Shirley testified that her boyfriend brought his half-brother into the plot.
Shirley’s testimony in Allen Superior Court is nearly identical to the version she told jurors in a South Bend courtroom last summer at the trial of Mark Leonard, who was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison without chance of parole.
Shirley has pleaded guilty to two counts arson conspiracy and faces 20-50 years in prison.