More than four years after an intentional home explosion killed two south-side Indianapolis residents and damaged dozens of nearby houses, Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said reaching the end of the emotional legal battle is gratifying.
Marion Superior Judge Sheila Carlisle sentenced the fourth suspect in the deadly November 2012 explosion in the Richmond Hill neighborhood, Monserrate Shirley, to 50 years Tuesday, the maximum sentence allowed under state law. Shirley pleaded guilty to two counts of conspiracy to commit arson in the blast that killed her neighbors, Jennifer and Dion Longworth, injured several others and damaged or destroyed 80 homes.
Shirley’s sentence moves the state closer to the conclusion of a yearslong dramatic legal saga that included plea agreements, venue changes, hundreds of witnesses and weeks of testimony. Speaking to reporters Wednesday morning following Shirley’s sentencing, Curry expressed gratitude for the hours of work and sacrifice his staff put in to bring the case to a resolution, but made special note of the victims, families and witnesses who were willing to re-live the pain of the explosion and the ensuing days in an effort to bring the perpetrators to justice.
“We can never begin to comprehend their grief and anger,” Curry said.
Shirley’s main co-conspirators, half-brothers Mark Leonard and Bob Leonard Jr., each took their cases to trial after being charged with murder, arson and a slew of other charges. Pretrial publicity moved Mark Leonard’s case to South Bend and Bob Leonard’s case to Fort Wayne, forcing the Marion County Prosecutor’s Officer to shell out nearly $115,000 in lodging and travel costs alone and requiring the Marion County Sheriff’s Office to use its vehicles to transport victims and Richmond Hill residents to the northern Indiana cities on at least 16 different occasions.
During the prosecution of the Leonard brothers, Curry called 175 witnesses during Mark Leonard’s six-week trial and 162 witnesses during Bob Leonard’s five-week trial, while also introducing roughly 2,500 pieces of evidence.
Some evidence not yet known at the time the brothers were charged in December 2012 eventually became critical to the prosecution’s case, Curry said Wednesday. For example, investigators found burn patterns in concrete samples from Shirley’s home, indicating that the suspects had poured gasoline on the floor in an effort to ignite a fire in addition to their orchestration of the natural gas explosion, the prosecutor said. Additionally, Bob Leonard’s DNA was discovered on the front of the home.
Both Mark and Bob Leonard were found guilty of the charges against them in 2015 and 2016, respectively, with Mark Leonard receiving two life sentences without parole plus 75 years and Bob Leonard receiving two life sentences without parole plus 70 years. Both men appealed their cases to the Indiana Supreme Court earlier this year, but an opinion from the justices has not yet been handed down. The court heard arguments in Mark Leonard’s case in October.
In addition to the Leonard trials and Shirley’s guilty plea, prosecutors also reached plea agreements with two other co-conspirators, Gary Thompson and Glenn Hults. Thompson was sentenced to 30 years for his role in the deadly blast earlier this month, and Hults is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 28.
When the Richmond Hill case first began four years ago, Curry said his office was operating under the assumption that there would be four, not five, main suspects – Shirley, the Leonard brothers and one other person seen entering the home on the day of the explosion. “A relatively large cast of characters” made determining who the fourth person was a challenge, but the Leonards and Shirley were obvious suspects from day one, the prosecutor said.
In fact, Curry said law enforcement officials had Shirley and Mark and Bob Leonard under surveillance in the days after the explosion. At one point, Mark Leonard and Shirley were being tracked as they drove north toward Chicago. A decision was made to arrest the suspects if they crossed state lines, Curry said, but upon reaching Lake County, Shirley and Leonard turned their car around and headed back toward Indianapolis for reasons that still remain unknown.
The biggest surprise in the case against the conspirators came from Shirley’s confession, Curry said.
“Getting Monserrate Shirley’s cooperation allowed us to identify that (fourth) person conclusively,” he said.
Curry conceded Wednesday morning that asking for Shirley to receive the maximum sentence was a difficult decision because she took responsibility for her actions by pleading guilty and providing enough information to lead to the prosecution of Hults. But at the same time, the prosecutor said her actions necessitated consequences.
“(She) made choices that resulted in horrible consequences,” Curry said.
The prosecutor went on to say he feels particularly bad for Shirley’s daughter, who, like the Richmond Hill residents, was an innocent victim of her mother’s actions. And although he intentionally did not attend the sentencing yesterday in deference to the victims, Curry said the families of those who were killed or injured have previously told him that they are relieved their legal battle will resolve itself by the end of 2016.