'But for Monserrate Shirley:' She was a neighbor. A friend. A nurse. She betrayed it all.

At 11:11 p.m. on Nov. 10, 2012, a two-story home on the south side of Indianapolis exploded with the force of as much as 5 tons of TNT. The blast – the product of an insurance fraud scheme – killed two people and injured dozens of others. Thirty-three homes were damaged so severely they were deemed unrecoverable, and had to be torn down to the foundation. Estimates for the total scope of the damage caused by the explosion exceeded $4.5 million.

Investigators quickly honed in on the home's owner, Monserrate Shirley, her boyfriend Mark Leonard and his brother, Bob Leonard Jr., as the primary suspects. But their arrests were only the beginning of years of work to put them behind bars for good.

This story is Chapter III of a three-part series. Get caught up on the first two chapters here: Chapter I: The Night the Sky Caught Fire | Chapter II: The $4 Million Arson Plot.

*****

By December 2014, two years after the explosion in the Richmond Hill subdivision, prosecutors were preparing to go to trial without any cooperating witnesses. An offhand comment would change that.

At a routine pretrial hearing, deputy prosecutor Denise Robinson, not thinking much of it, told Monserrate Shirley’s defense counsel that if their client wanted anything other than a trial seeking life without parole, they had better work something out by the end of January 2015.

Denise Robinson

“I didn’t want it to affect the trial date,” Robinson said. “The Richmond Hill neighbors had been waiting long enough without a trial. I didn’t want to do anything that would cause that trial date to be continued.”

At that point, Shirley and her co-defendants – her boyfriend Mark Leonard and his brother, Bob Leonard Jr. – had been sitting in jail for two years following their arrest on charges of murder, arson and attempted insurance fraud in connection with the explosion. None of them had given any indication they were willing to take a plea under the terms prosecutors were offering.

Robinson says she didn’t expect anything to change.

“While there had been some communications early on, we were not willing to offer Monserrate Shirley a significant deal for her cooperation,” Robinson said. “She was too involved. She owned the house. She was the neighbor that all the other neighbors were looking at. She was the nurse. She was the one who got her daughter and her cat out of the situation and left her neighbors in the situation. While we knew that Monserrate Shirley on her own would never have caused this crime, it couldn’t have happened without her. So there wasn’t a great deal of pressure on us, or desire by us, to offer her anything.”

(Left to right) Mark Leonard, Bob Leonard Jr., Monserrate Shirley, and Gary Thompson

Having Shirley as a witness came with its own pitfalls, though. For one: She had earned a reputation as a “master liar,” as Mark Leonard’s defense team would later call her.

Shirley and Leonard had gone on television on multiple occasions following the blast to state their innocence, and to ask for privacy.

In an interview with former RTV6 reporter Stacia Matthews, Shirley suggested the explosion may have been an attempt on her life.

"(Whoever is responsible will) have to pay for what they did to me and everybody else," Shirley said in the interview. "I don't know what happened. Somebody knew that I was out of town. I should have been there."

She’d said similar things in an interview with IMPD Det. Aaron Carter.

In a room inside IFD Station 63 – less than a mile from the Richmond Hill subdivision – Carter and Shirley talked about her whereabouts on the night of the explosion. Shirley wasn’t a suspect at the time, and the interview was a routine one.

Carter would testify that her emotions and demeanor seemed normal at the time, for someone whose house had just blown up. He questioned her about the multiple boardings of her cat, Snowball, which he found “odd.” She explained that Snowball had anxiety.

At the end of the interview, Carter asked Shirley what should happen to the person responsible for the explosion. Eventually, he’d be asked to repeat her answer at her boyfriend’s murder trial.

“She said they should be punished,” Carter testified. “They should go to jail. She talked about being Catholic and said it was in God's hands, but still, they should be punished."

As fate would have it, it would be Carter, just a few weeks later, who would place Monserrate Shirley in handcuffs.

Below, former IMPD Det. Sgt. Jeff Wager, the lead homicide investigator in the case, talks about the surveillance and arrests of Mark Leonard and Monserrate Shirley:

 

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It was at a meeting with prosecutors in early 2015 that Richmond Hill residents learned of the plea deal being worked out with their former neighbor, Monserrate Shirley.

Although prosecutors didn’t need their blessing to go ahead with the plea, Robinson said they felt it was important to tell the residents as much as they could.

“The meeting was difficult for me because I couldn’t ethically tell them everything,” Robinson said. “Until she’d agreed and signed on the dotted line, there were things I could not tell them. And I wanted to be able to tell them everything.”

TRANSCRIPT | The full testimony of Monserrate Shirley

Robinson could not tell them, for example, that Shirley would be facing a sentencing range of 20-50 years in prison. Or that, because it was her first serious offense, a judge could eventually decide to suspend some or all of that sentence. As Mark Leonard’s defense team would point out repeatedly throughout his trial, there was a chance, however small, that Shirley’s cooperation could end with her walking free at the end.

Robinson also couldn’t tell the residents that Shirley’s cooperation would mean charges against two more suspects: Gary Thompson and Glenn Hults.

Gary Thompson & Glenn Hults

“We firmly believed that Gary Thompson played a role, but until she cooperated, we couldn’t prove that,” Robinson said. “We believed that he did, we had some very thin evidence that he did. We knew somebody else was involved, and he was the only one whose name consistently came up, but it was only after she cooperated that we were able to charge Gary Thompson and Glenn Hults.”

Robinson told the residents what she could: That they didn’t need Monserrate Shirley as a witness, but that she would help fill in blanks they hadn’t been able to. Most importantly, Shirley’s testimony would further tip the scales against the Leonard brothers.

“[The residents] clearly knew the Leonards were the bad actors, and that we needed to do everything we could to get to them,” Robinson said. “So in the end there were a couple of people who were opposed to it, and I respected that. To this day, absolutely they had the right to do that. And I understand it, because of their feelings about her. But the majority supported us.”

*****

Prosecuting Mark Leonard presented with some challenges.

For one thing, the trial team – deputy prosecutors Denise Robinson and Mark Hollingsworth, plus two junior deputies – would have to wade through an entire subdivision-worth of evidence to build, arguably, the largest criminal prosecution in Indiana history.

Denise Robinson speaks to the media during the trial of Mark Leonard in July 2015 while Mark Hollingsworth looks on.

To do that, the team moved 80 boxes of documents connected to the case to an office on the east side of Indianapolis. For years, the team holed up in that office three days a week to avoid being distracted by other ongoing cases.

On the other two days, Robinson – still the head of the prosecutor’s homicide division – would review pending cases and prepare for other trials on her plate.

Mark Leonard was the first to go on trial. As his court date neared, the workload ramped up. Just to prepare the evidence list – which eventually numbered more than 2,000 items – Robinson said the entire four-person team worked 24 hours straight.

Then there was the question of Leonard’s history. On top of his prior criminal convictions, at the time of his arrest, Mark Leonard was being sued civilly by multiple women who accused him of scamming them out of money through online dating sites. He’d also been previously accused of insurance fraud in connection with a car accident.

Mark Leonard is led into court.

Ultimately, none of that mattered.

“I tried to ignore Mark Leonard’s history as much as I could,” Robinson said.

The problem was that none of that criminal history would be admissible at trial. Robinson knew that.

“So while I had that, I pretty quickly set it aside and put it in a file marked ‘Mark Leonard’ and never looked at it, because I couldn’t allow that to influence me in the decision. I had to know I could make this case based on the evidence I had.”

The evidence Robinson and Hollingsworth had was substantial. In addition to the thousands of pieces of physical evidence, they had more than 200 witnesses lined up to testify. While Shirley and the Leonards had been sitting in jail, Robinson and Hollingsworth had been traveling to the ATF lab in Washington D.C. to learn about explosions and taking a crash course on natural gas. Their challenge was to distill two-and-a-half years of research and investigation into a six week trial – without losing the jury in the process.

“We knew we were taking a week of testimony from the residents to talk about what had happened to their houses,” Robinson said. “There was discussion about: Should we cut all of those? Should we not use all those witnesses? The defense certainly offered to stipulate that 60 homes were damaged. Should I have accepted that stipulation? It would have shortened the trial a week. But didn’t the jury need to hear from the residents? And you have to weigh that out? Are they going to get bored with it?”

*****

Mark Leonard’s trial at the St. Joseph County Courthouse was eventful before it even started.

Out of fear that a Marion County jury would be too tainted by extensive media coverage of the case, the trial had been moved to South Bend, Indiana. But a whole day’s-worth of potential jurors would end up tainted anyway – not by media coverage, but by Leonard’s defense team.

While questioning potential jurors, one of Leonard’s attorneys, Diane Black, brought up out of the blue that her client had tried to hire a hitman from jail to kill his friend, and potential witness against him, Mark Duckworth.

Defense attorney Diane Black speaks to the media during Mark Leonard's trial in South Bend, Indiana.

Although the jury would eventually hear testimony and an audio recording of Leonard talking to an undercover ATF agent posing as a hitman (and Leonard would eventually get an extra 50 years in prison for it), having that information before the trial even began would have been extremely prejudicial against him.

FULL STORY | Mark Leonard’s friend says he ‘knew too much’

Exasperated, Judge John Marnocha, who was assigned to oversee the trial, dismissed dozens of potential jurors and ended the day early with an admonition for Black and her co-counsel, David Shircliff.

Even years later, Robinson says she doesn’t know why Black brought the hitman allegations up.

“Taking them at face value, taking them at what they told the court, they believed that since it was going to come up in the trial they should talk about it during jury selection,” Robinson said. “I don’t know why they did it. I know it caught us by surprise and we had to react to it.”

It wasn’t the only curveball Black and Shircliff would throw at the prosecution.

Once the trial began, rather than trying to claim their client was innocent, Black and Shircliff instead told the jury up front that he was guilty – but of trying to start a “small fire,” not cause an explosion.

TRANSCRIPT | Opening statements in the trial of Mark Leonard

That presented a potential pitfall in the case, Robinson said.

“When a defense attorney comes out and says, ‘My client didn’t do anything at all,’ but you clearly can show they did, then usually it’s going to be an all-or-nothing verdict,” Robinson said. “But these were good defense attorneys. When you come out and say, ‘My client attempted to commit insurance fraud through a small fire and this just happened, he had no idea,’ what the jury doesn’t realize, because I’m not allowed to tell them, is attempted insurance fraud – even if coupled with reckless homicide – is a class ‘C’ felony. A class ‘C’ felony carries 2-8 years. By the time we’d got to trial, he’d already been in jail for going on three years. That’s time served, and he’s out. But I’m not allowed to say that. So you do get concerned about, will they see the arsons? Will they get to the felony murder?”

Worried that jurors might easily convict Leonard of the lesser charges against him, but not the larger ones that carried the life without parole sentence prosecutors were asking for, Robinson built her closing argument from the bottom up.

“I worked from the smaller charges to the larger ones to say, ‘Of course it’s clear he did this, this and this, but here’s how you get to here,’” Robinson said.

The “here,” in this case, was the knowing murder of Dion and Jennifer Longworth.

*****

On August 14, 2015, Mark Ray Leonard was sentenced to two consecutive terms of life without parole, plus an additional 75 years, on 53 counts, including murder, arson and insurance fraud.

Seven months later, on March 18, 2016, his brother Bob Leonard Jr. received his own sentence of life without parole in a courtroom in Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Gary Thompson, who had helped with the first two unsuccessful attempts to blow up Monserrate Shirley’s house, pleaded guilty on Dec. 2, 2016, to conspiracy to commit arson and was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Glenn Hults, who had known of the scheme and kept Shirley’s daughter Brooke out of the house, pleaded guilty on Dec. 28, 2016, to one count of assisting a criminal. He was sentenced to 3 years in prison.

For her cooperation with the prosecutions of the Leonard brothers, and the information she provided that led to the convictions of Hults and Thompson, Monserrate Shirley was spared the possibility of life without parole.

Monserrate Shirley is lead into her sentencing hearing in December 2016.

Instead, on Dec. 20, 2016 – after a two-day sentencing hearing that would be the closest her former neighbors would get to seeing her on trial – Shirley was sentenced to the maximum term of 50 years in prison.

In her sentencing order, Judge Sheila Carlisle repeatedly stressed that Shirley could have stopped the plan at any time – but didn’t.

“You were a mom. You were a nurse. You were a neighbor and you were a friend,” Carlisle said. “And in each of those categories, you betrayed your trust.”

At the final tally, the explosion meant to allow Shirley and Leonard to collect $300,000 in insurance money caused more than $4 million-worth of property damage. Of the dozens and dozens of homes damaged by the blast, 33 were affected so severely they had to be demolished.

The human toll is harder to estimate. At least half a dozen marriages in the Richmond Hill neighborhood ended in divorce in the years immediately following the blast. Residents, particularly the younger ones, report experiencing continued psychological trauma from the incident. More than one-third of the families who lived in the neighborhood on the night of the blast have since moved away for good.

Glenn Olvey

In November 2014, Glenn Olvey – who was trapped with his family in his collapsing house – finally gave up on rebuilding his home in the neighborhood. He was, however, eventually able to return to his hobby of umpiring softball.

Amazingly, despite the force of the explosion, a hybrid pear tree planted by Dion Longworth still grows in the yard where he and his wife Jennifer’s house once stood. For their families, the tree is one last connection to the loved ones they lost on Nov. 10, 2012.

Dion and Jennifer Longworth

For Lt. Mario Garza, the Indianapolis Fire Department veteran tasked with leading the arson investigation, the Richmond Hill explosion will likely be the most significant challenge of his career.

“To see the faces of the neighborhood people and the sense of relief and calmness when the verdicts came in was a good thing,” Garza said. “It was a good feeling.”

Deputy prosecutor Denise Robinson returned from prosecuting the Richmond Hill cases to a pile of homicides waiting on her desk. She continued handling some of Marion County’s most heinous crimes until January 2017, when her former boss, then-Elkhart County Prosecutor Curtis Hill, called her up and asked her to join him at the Indiana Statehouse, where he had just been elected attorney general.

Robinson, all-too-aware of the limitations of the justice system after decades as a prosecutor, says she is just glad they were able to get some amount of justice for the victims.

“If I could bring Dion and Jennifer back, I would do that in a heartbeat,” she said. “But I can’t do that, and everybody knows you can’t do that, but sometimes there’s this perception that getting through the justice system will make things better. I can’t give the Olveys back a peace of mind. At the trial I had firefighters crying on the stand. I had a homicide detective crying on the stand. I can’t give back what was taken from them on November 10. All I can say is, I had one small role in this. One small job. I did my best. I’m thankful for my trial team for sticking with me. We did what prosecutors are supposed to do. We did the right thing, for the right reason, and got the right result in the right way.”

Monserrate Shirley was ordered to serve out her sentence at the Indiana Women’s Prison in Indianapolis. With good behavior, her earliest possible release date is Dec. 19, 2032. She will be 72 years old.

Jordan Fischer is the senior digital reporter for RTV6. Follow his reporting on Twitter at @Jordan_RTV6 or on Facebook.