The three people charged with murder and arson after a deadly explosion in a southside subdivision could face life in prison but not the death penalty.
Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said Monday that his office is asking for life sentences without parole for homeowner Monserrate Shirley, her boyfriend Mark Leonard and his brother, Bob Leonard Jr.
The prosecutor’s office also filed additional felony charges against each member of the trio for damage caused to homes that did not have to be torn down and against Mark Leonard and another man for an unrelated case of insurance fraud.
Investigators believe someone removed a natural gas valve on the fireplace, let gas build up in the home for six to nine hours and ignited it with a spark from a microwave oven, which could be set on a timer, in order to blow up the house and collect insurance money.
How it works
The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office is asking for life without parole sentences in the Richmond Hill case. Here’s a look at how it works:
Charges: Murder charges can result in sentences of 45-65 years in prison unless there are aggravating factors and the prosecutor requests life without parole.
Aggravating factors: In this case, the aggravating factors were use of an explosive device, more than one death and a death caused by fire.
Death penalty: The prosecutor’s office could have pursued the death penalty because of the aggravating factors but instead will ask for life without the possibility of parole.
They each face multiple felony charges that include two counts of murder for the deaths of Jennifer and John Longworth. The Greenwood Southwest Elementary School teacher and her husband lived next door and were killed in the massive blast that also injured 12 people, decimated much of the far-southside neighborhood and displaced dozens of residents.
Indianapolis attorney James Voyles, who represents Shirley, did not return messages Monday. Public defenders Deanna Martin, who represents Mark Leonard, and Ted Minch, who represents Bob Leonard, also did not return messages Monday.
Shirley and the Leonards could have faced the death penalty because of aggravating circumstances, according to the prosecutor’s office.
The murder charges in this case could result in death or life without parole because the murders were committed by the unlawful detonation of an explosive device, more than one person died and John Longworth died as the result of coming into contact with fire, according to a statement by the prosecutor’s office.
Under Indiana law, a conviction on a murder charge results in a minimum sentence of 45 years unless there are aggravating factors and the prosecutor specifically requests death or life without parole. .
“The intentional acts of the defendants, as alleged, were undertaken with no regard whatsoever to the tragic consequences which did in fact flow from a scheme to blow up the Shirley residence. Those alleged acts, if proven, thus justify that the defendants spend life in prison with no option for parole,” Curry said in a news release.
In an interview Monday, Curry said his office decided against pursuing the death penalty because it would be difficult to prove to a jury that Shirley, Mark Leonard and Bob Leonard Jr. deliberately intended to murder anyone.
He said that they could have foreseen that the explosion would kill Shirley’s neighbors, but that jurors might be reluctant to sentence them to death since they intended to collect insurance money and didn’t set out to harm anyone in particular.
The prosecutor’s office decided to seek life without parole in the Richmond Hill case partly to try to bring resolution for the victims and their families more quickly, Curry said.
“With all the numerous appeals, it’s not unlikely to spend 10 to 15 years on such cases, and you still might not have an execution after all that,” he said. “We had to weigh those factors before going down that road.”
The prosecutor’s office consulted with family members of the victims before deciding to pursue a punishment of life without parole, Curry said.
He understood that some might be disappointed and want to see the death penalty instead. But he said such decisions couldn’t be based on the notoriety of the crime or the publicity surrounding the case.
“We understand that emotional reaction, and we can’t comprehend the pain of victims’ families,” he said. “But in the end, our judgment is based upon objective analysis.”
The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office also further reviewed its case against Shirley and the Leonards and decided to file an additional half-dozen felony charges, including an additional count of arson against all three for the damage to homes that did not have to be demolished.
The prosecutor’s office charged Mark Leonard and his friend and associate David Gill, 49, with a felony charge of conspiracy to commit insurance fraud for submitting an insurance claim that a motorcycle was stolen when it really had been disassembled.
In October, about a month before the explosion, investigators said, they cut up a 2011 Harley-Davidson motorcycle, stripped it for parts and filed an insurance claim that estimated its value at $25,000, according to a probable-cause affidavit.
In December, Mark Leonard, Bob Leonard Jr. and Shirley each were charged with two counts of murder, one felony count of conspiracy to commit arson, 12 felony counts of arson for each injured person and 33 felony counts of arson for each home that had to be demolished.
At that time, Shirley and Mark Leonard also were charged with an additional felony count of conspiracy to commit arson, for an unsuccessful attempt to blow up her house the weekend before the explosion.
Investigators said they triggered the massive explosion by programming a microwave to set off a spark after filling the house with gas for up to nine hours in the hope of collecting insurance money.
After further review, the prosecutor’s office added another felony charge of insurance fraud against Shirley and another felony charge of conspiracy to commit insurance fraud against Shirley and Mark Leonard.
An investigation is ongoing, and the prosecutor’s office will continue to file charges if any new crimes are discovered, Curry said.
Investigators still are looking for a fourth conspirator who was believed to have accompanied Bob Leonard Jr. to Shirley’s home on the day of the fatal explosion.
Richmond hill explosion case
The Marion County Prosecutor’s Office decided to pursue a sentence of life without parole and file additional charges against Monserrate Shirley, Mark Leonard and Bob Leonard Jr. Here’s a look:
December charges: Mark Leonard, Monserrate Shirley and Bob Leonard Jr. were charged with two counts of murder, one count of conspiracy to commit arson, 12 counts of Class A felony arson, and 33 counts of Class B felony arson. Shirley and Mark Leonard also face an additional charge of conspiracy to commit arson.
New charges: The three all were charged Monday with an additional Class B felony charge of arson. The prosecutor’s office also charged Shirley and Mark Leonard with a charge of conspiracy to commit insurance fraud, Shirley with a charge of insurance fraud, and Mark Leonard with an additional charge of conspiracy to commit insurance fraud that’s unrelated to the Richmond Hill explosion.
The sentence: Murder charges typically carry sentences of up to 45 years, but aggravating circumstances in this case allow the prosecutor’s office to pursue life in prison without the possibility of parole.
What happens now: The prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury that at least one of the aggravating circumstances applies; the jury must unanimously agree to life imprisonment without parole.
Where the case stands
Here’s a look at where the Richmond Hill explosion case stands:
Change of venue: Monserrate Shirley and Mark Leonard have requested a change of venue because of publicity.
What’s next: The next pretrial hearing will be Feb. 21 in Indianapolis.