Prosecutor charges 3 with felony murder in Ind. house explosion

11:15 PM, Dec 21, 2012   |    comments
  • From left: Monserrate Shirley, Mark Leonard and Robert Leonard. / MATT KRYGER / The Star
  • Citizens Energy workers continue their investigation last Monday afternoon by digging into the front sidewalk looking for possible explanation into the explosion at 8300 of Fieldfare Way in the Richmond Hill subdivision. / (Matt Kryger/The Star)
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By Ryan Sabalow / The Indianapolis Star

Prosecutors charged three people with felony murder Friday in the Southeastside Indianapolis house explosion last month that killed two people and destroyed or damaged dozens of homes.

Monserrate Shirley, whose Southside home exploded, killing two of her neighbors, was charged, along with her boyfriend, Mark Leonard, and his brother, Robert Leonard. They were taken into custody this morning, prosecutors said.

Authorities say the trio released gas into the house by opening or removing the regulator valve on the home's gas fireplace. Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said a microwave oven set on a timer was used to ignite the gas.

Curry said they also tried and failed to blow up the house the weekend before the explosion.

Curry said Shirley had recently increased the insurance coverage on her house to $300,000. The trio was hoping to cash in the insurance payments to pay off their sizeable debt. Curry said Robert Leonard took personal items, including photographs and financial documents, out of the house prior to the explosion.

In addition to two counts of felony murder, each of the defendants was charged with one count of conspiracy to commit arson, a Class A felony; 12 counts of arson, a Class A felony; and 33 counts of arson, a Class B felony.

Also, Shirley and Mark Leonard were each charged with an additional count of conspiracy to commit arson, a Class B felony.

The case qualifies for the death penalty or life without parole due to multiple deaths, authorities said.

Prosecutors will wait 30 days to decide whether to seek the death penalty.

"We are here today to discuss a thoroughly, thoroughly senseless act which resulted in the death of two young adults in the prime of their life," Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said in the first minutes of the news conference on the first floor of his office's building in Downtown Indianapolis.

"We in the criminal justice community must devote our best efforts to see that justice is served on behalf of those victims," he said, including those who were injured or the dozens whose homes were damaged beyond repair.

Curry was flanked by more than a dozen local officials from the prosecutor's office, the Indianapolis Department of Public Safety, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, the Fire Department, the Marion County Sheriff's Office and the Indianapolis mayor's office. Others were there to represent the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the U.S. Secret Service, both of which played key roles in the multiple-agency investigation.

Curry said there is an ongoing investigation to determine whether anyone else was involved. Prosecutors say at least one other person was at the house the day of explosion with Robert Leonard.

Shirley's attorney, Randall Cable, didn't return messages left on his office and his cell phone.

Alcona Drive homeowner, Tony Quakenbush, 35, was among those whose homes were condemned after the blast. He called the arrests welcome news.

"I would absolutely say it's a sense of relief," he said. "The not knowing has been the hardest part."

He said he and his wife, Leanna, and their two children had been forced to live in a motel for three weeks. They've since moved into a small apartment.

Shirley's home at 8349 Fieldfare Way and three others were cordoned off after the blast. Officials called the area a crime scene. The blast killed John "Dion" Longworth, 34, and his wife, Jennifer, 36. He was an audio engineer; she was a schoolteacher.

The explosion and subsequent fires damaged more than 80 homes, demolishing five. Prosecutors today called it a "thoroughly senseless act."

Shirley, a 47-year-old nurse, told the Indianapolis Star following the Nov. 10 explosion that she and Mark Leonard were at a Lawrenceburg casino on the night their home blew up.

"Everybody's pointing a finger at me like I did something wrong," she told reporters last month during an interview at Cable's office. "I mean, I'm totally devastated like my neighbors are."

She sobbed during the interview, but she didn't shed a tear. Shirley made a point after the interview to say that her tear ducts didn't work.

Investigators homed in on Shirley and the Leonards after the blast.

Shirley's daughter, who also lives in the home, was visiting a friend the night of the explosion and their cat had been boarded.

Last month, investigators announced the case was considered a criminal investigation. Investigators didn't identify a suspect at that point but at least 20 search warrants had been served. Robert Leonard's home was one of those searched.

As the investigation progressed, investigators said they believed the explosion was caused by natural gas, detonated with remotely or with a timing device

Police also seized a white van after the explosion. The van belonged to Mark Leonard, who is the caretaker at a shuttered Southwestside hotel and convention center.

Some neighbors told police they had seen a white van in the neighborhood and in front of Shirley's house in previous weeks. They said it was a windowless work van, about 15 years old.

After the case was declared a homicide, Cable released a statement saying his clients had requested him to issue this statement "and then ask that they be left alone."

Authorities said the Leonard brothers had done research asking a Citizens Gas employee about different types of gas. Mark Leonard had changed the thermostat from digital to a slide switch thermostat so that it would ignite a spark, they said.

"Monserrate Shirley and Mark Leonard watched in bewilderment the news report that the authorities are now treating the investigation as a criminal investigation as well as a causation search," the statement read. "The two remain horrified at the tragic events, destruction and loss of lives that occurred and have been cooperating with the authorities since their return to Indianapolis over the weekend. They have cooperated fully with various investigators and agencies on multiple occasions and have answered each and every question, including speculation as to whether they may have been targeted by anyone."

In 2007, Shirley and then-husband, John Shirley, filed jointly for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Court records show they had liabilities of nearly $410,000 and assets of about $316,000.

Among their liabilities were two mortgages on the Fieldfare Way house, on which they owed $225,794. The house's value was listed as $230,000, according to court records.

The house was listed for $149,900 in late 2011 as a possible short sale, but it was pulled off the market in March at the request of the owner, according to real estate listings. The house had a gas furnace and a wood-burning fireplace with a gas starter, according to descriptions.

The couple divorced in February 2011. According to divorce records, Monserrate Shirley, an intensive-care nurse, assumed full responsibility for paying the home's mortgage. John Shirley is required to pay $1,000 a month in child support.

Last month Cable said that as far as he knew Monserrate Shirley was current on her mortgage payments.

Shirley's bankruptcy attorney, John Steinkamp, told The Star last month that the couple lost bankruptcy protection when they prematurely stopped making payments to the trustee.

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