INDIANAPOLIS — Residents whose Indianapolis homes were battered by a gas explosion and relatives of a couple who were killed packed a court hearing Monday for the three suspects charged with rigging the blast.
The crowd watched in grim silence as a Marion County judge entered not guilty pleas for Monserrate Shirley, her boyfriend Mark Leonard, and his brother, Bob Leonard. They are charged with murder, arson and other counts in the Nov. 10 blast.
The three, who appeared in court in orange jail jumpsuits and handcuffs, were ordered held without bond. Prosecutors say Shirley and the Leonard brothers deliberately blew up her home so they could collect the insurance payout.
The fiery blast destroyed five homes, including Shirley's, and damaged dozens of others in the Richmond Hill subdivision in the far south side of the city. The explosion killed Shirley's next-door neighbors, John Dion Longworth, a 34-year-old electronics expert, and his 36-year-old wife, second-grade teacher Jennifer Longworth. Shirley and Mark Leonard told investigators they were at a southern Indiana casino at the time of the blast.
John Dion Longworth's aunt, Pam Mosser, a psychiatric nurse who attended the hearing on the back of a 16-hour shift, said it is important for people to know how her family suffered while the suspects apparently gave no thought for their neighbors' lives.
"Dion and Jennifer died suffering and screaming. It is unbelievable to me that someone could be gambling and drinking while their house blows up and people are dying," Mosser told reporters after the hearing.
"I cannot forgive that," she said.
Shirley, 47, was facing mounting financial woes, including $63,000 in credit card debt and bankruptcy proceedings, court documents say. And a friend of Mark Leonard's told investigators that Leonard said he had lost about $10,000 at a casino some three weeks before the explosion. The home's original loan was for $116,000 and a second mortgage was taken out on the home for $65,000, the affidavit says.
Mark Leonard told the judge he couldn't pay for an attorney because all his cash was inside Shirley's house when it blew up, leaving him with about $500 in a checking account.
"All my money, all of it, it's gone," he said. "I had money in the house and it's not there anymore."
The judge appointed public defenders for the Leonards. Those attorneys did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Randall Cable, Shirley's attorney, declined comment when reached by phone after the hearing.
Shirley and the Leonard brothers face two counts of murder as well as 33 counts of arson – one count for each of the homes damaged so badly that officials have ordered their demolition.
Shirley and Mark Leonard, 43, also face two counts of conspiracy to commit arson, while Bob Leonard, 54, faces a single count. The conspiracy charges stem from a failed explosion that prosecutors claim the trio had attempted the weekend before the successful timed blast.
Prosecutor Terry Curry has said he will consider seeking the death penalty. A trial for all three suspects was scheduled for March 4.
"I think they should die a horrible death," Mosser said. "And it's terrible to have these feelings."
Investigators believe the suspects removed a gas fireplace valve and a gas line regulator in Shirley's house that subsequently filled up with gas. They have said a microwave, apparently set to start on a timer, sparked the explosion.
Reporters were positioned in the jury box so that the small courtroom could accommodate the 30 or so members of the public who squeezed in to observe the initial hearing.
Richmond Hills resident Barry Chipman said neighbors remained fearful of loud noises more than a month after the blast. He said he was driving with his teenage daughter recently when he popped the gum he was chewing and it "made her jump." A few minutes later, he said, she did the same, startling him.
"Everybody's still jumpy," he said.