The $4 Million Arson Plot: How greed sparked the Richmond Hill Explosion

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.

Once the fires died down, investigators were charged with figuring out what, or who, had turned a family's home into a giant bomb.

This story is Chapter II of a three-part series. Get caught up on the first part here: Chapter I: The Night the Sky Caught Fire.

*****

Lt. Mario Garza began his investigation the same way he’d started hundreds of other cases: at the front of the house.

In this case, there wasn’t much house left to speak of. Whatever had caused 8349 Fieldfare Way to explode had turned it into a debris field covering the better part of a block.

Lt. Mario Garza

Still, Garza started from the front – circling his way around the house clockwise, documenting everything in notes and photographs, until he’d examined the entire scene.

Once that was done, investigators created a grid to cover what had been Monserrate Shirley’s home, and began picking through the debris by hand, methodically looking for anything that could tell them what had happened. Items of interest were placed in a Bobcat scoop for further examination. Eventually, the debris from the site would be placed into dumpsters and then sorted through again.

"I had firefighters looking through gutters. I had firefighters working shoulder to shoulder looking for debris for anything we should see. I even had Citizens Energy group put a scope through the sewers,” Garza said. “You think of it like a potato, maybe. You're peeling off the layers until you get the job done."

The night before, Garza had been off-duty and at home on the east side of Indianapolis when he felt his house shake. Once he began hearing the radio chatter, he knew something major had happened.

“When your house shakes, and it’s not in your house or your neighborhood, you automatically think, ‘Well this isn’t good,’” Garza said.

Garza, a firefighter with more than 25 years of experience on the job, asked to be put on the call to respond to the scene. But without protective gear, he had to watch from across the street while other firefighters tried to get the rapidly spreading flames under control.

“I was across the street and I was watching everything that was going on, but I couldn’t help anybody,” Garza said.

Aerial shot of the aftermath of the Richmond Hill Explosion.

Hours later, once he had been selected as the lead fire investigator in the case, Garza set to the task of figuring out what had happened.

At the beginning, the leading theories were plane crash or meth lab. But both were quickly ruled out.

There was no smell of alcohol. There was no anhydrous ammonia. I just didn't see the normal stuff you would find with a meth lab. So that was disregarded."

He considered the possibility of a gas leak on the jurisdictional side – the area of pipe outside of the house that belonged to the utility provider, Citizens Energy Group. Tests of the underground pipes, and the gas systems in other neighboring homes, eventually ruled that out.

Although he wasn’t using the word “arson” yet, Garza says he began to suspect something was afoot when he noticed everything that was missing from the house.

“I saw a lot of remote controls, but no TVs,” Garza said.

Below: Lead homicide investigator Det. Sgt. Jeff Wager talks about the "first red flag" in the case.

 

Monserrate Shirley had briefly placed the house up for sale, and photos of the interior were still available online. One picture in particular showed a living room full of furniture and a painting of Shirley’s young daughter hanging above the fireplace. Neither the furniture nor the painting were found at the scene. In the end, they would never be found.

Eventually, investigators found two key pieces of evidence that would push Garza toward an arson determination: a microwave that appeared to have been damaged from inside by an explosion; and an unexpected piece of straight pipe in the home’s gas manifold where the regulator valve should have been.

The home’s gas manifold was recovered basically intact at the scene. But the step-down regulator, which lowered gas from the high pressure at which it was pumped through the utility’s pipes to the low pressure used by ovens and furnaces, was gone.

"It's physically impossible for it to be in an explosion and come back and rearrange itself with new parts,” Garza said.

Something else was missing, too. The gas line leading into the home’s fireplace should have had its own regulator, called a Dante valve, to prevent too much gas from being released at once. While the rest of the gas line leading to the fireplace was intact, the Dante valve was gone.

Despite extensive searching – and even scoping of the neighborhood’s sewer system – the Dante valve was never found.

*****

From the back of a police car, Denise Robinson surveyed the destruction in Richmond Hill.

Robinson, who for the past six years headed up the homicide division at the Marion County Prosecutor’s Office, was no stranger to murder scenes – though few covered an entire neighborhood.

The explosion site wasn’t officially a murder scene yet, but Robinson had received a call the night after the blast from Det. Jeff Wager, the lead homicide detective assigned to the case, that some “problematic” things had been found at the scene.

Denise Robinson

Not wanting to give anything away, Robinson traveled to the scene as incognito as she could.

“I took great effort – riding in the back of the police car, making sure I wasn’t where media would be, going inside houses or a tent if we saw helicopters overhead – just to keep from the media that it was a criminal investigation until we were ready to announce it was a criminal investigation,” Robinson said.

A week later, the county’s elected prosecutor, Terry Curry, formally announced that the explosion was being treated as criminal in nature. But he didn’t say anything about the home’s residents, Monserrate Shirley and her boyfriend Mark Leonard, being suspects.

*****

When she was 25, Monserrate Shirley had followed her older brother and sister from Puerto Rico to the Midwest to get an education.

Soon thereafter, she met a man named John Shirley. They were married on July 17, 1993, and the couple moved to Indianapolis, where John had gotten a job at the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly.

John supported Monserrate while she finished her bachelor’s degree in nursing. In the meantime, they had one daughter together, named Brooke.

In 2003, while Monserrate was working as an RN at the veterans hospital downtown, she began pressuring her husband to move into the nearby Richmond Hill neighborhood, where her sister lived.

John wasn’t opposed to the move, but was worried about the cost. For one thing, Monserrate had just bought a brand new SUV.

Nevertheless, by early 2004 the family had moved into the neighborhood. John would live there for another seven years, until he moved out in 2011 following the couple’s bankruptcy and divorce. Among other possessions, he left a set of golf clubs behind – intending to pick them up when the weather was warmer.

As part of the divorce settlement, John agreed to pay child support and a portion of Brooke’s school tuition. Monserrate got the house – but also had to take responsibility for the couple’s debts.

At first, John had regular contact with Brooke, and his ex-wife wasn’t asking him to pay a portion of the money involved in their divorce settlement. But after she met Mark Leonard, that changed.

"There was an amount in the divorce that she didn't have to have me pay, and we'd had a verbal agreement about that,” John said. “I think shortly after meeting Mark, they decided to move in that direction."

By Nov. 10, 2012 – the night of the explosion – John was working three jobs to pay his child support. He was at one of his second-shift jobs when he got a call from Brook.

"She thought it was a plane crash,” John said. “That was the first thought that was out there.”

John called his ex-wife, who was at a casino in Lawrenceburg that night.

“She said, crying, that it was our house. It exploded.”

Later, once he’d had time to process the explosion, John realized his daughter’s beloved cat Snowball must have died in the blast. But as it turned out: Snowball was alive.

"I asked [Monserrate] what happened to Snowball, assuming he was dead,” John said. “He was the white Persian cat that belong to my daughter. It was a birthday present for Brooke that my ex had given her. Knowing that the cat meant a lot to Brook, I asked what happened to that cat. She said, ‘well, I had him staying someplace.’ I thought that was odd."

*****

As it turned out, Snowball wasn’t just boarded on the night of the explosion.

From Nov. 9-15 (the explosion happened on the 10th), the cat had been boarded at Barkefeller’s.

The weekend prior, Nov. 3-5, Snowball had been boarded at Arbor Lane Kennels. Monserrate had picked her up as usual – but after the explosion, she returned to ask for a receipt stating she’d wanted the cat groomed.

Snowball the Cat

Before that, Snowball was boarded at VCA Sugar Grove Animal Hospital from Oct. 26-29. The hospital said it had no record of boarding Snowball prior to that stay.

READ MORE | The odd boardings of Snowball the Cat

Investigators would soon learn Snowball wasn’t the only one who’d spent nearly a month’s-worth of weekends out of the house.

On the night of the explosion, and the two weekends prior, Monserrate Shirley’s daughter Brooke had stayed with friends. Shirley and her boyfriend Mark Leonard had been at the Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg.

 
 

Shirley had never been to a casino prior to meeting Leonard – which, as fate would have it, was almost a year to the day earlier.

Shirley and one of her friends, Mary, had gone out for the night to a bar called Crazy Town. There, Shirley quickly spotted Leonard. To her eyes he was a tall, handsome man with bleach-blonde hair and tight jeans. Leonard was making it no secret he had a wad of cash on him and a Hummer parked outside.

Years later, at Leonard’s trial for arson and murder, Shirley would testify that the pair had an immediate connection.

“Mark Leonard was staring at me right away,” Shirley said. “I was looking at him, too.”

"I ordered some beer for me and my friend. She only wanted a Coke, so I drank a beer. He kept staring at me. We moved to the end of the bar near where he was. He introduced himself. About 10 minutes later, Mary said she had to go, and I was in good hands."

Monserrate Shirley and Mark Leonard during an interview in the weeks after the explosion.

Shirley eventually allowed Leonard to take her home. He was still there in the morning when her ex-husband arrived to drop their daughter Brooke off.

“I asked him to leave, because my daughter was coming,” Shirley said. “I said I don't like to have nobody in my house when my daughter was coming – no men there. He said he was good with kids. I said ‘no, no, please leave.’ He said he would hide in the bathroom, and so he did."

That initial encounter would set a pattern for the rest of Shirley and Leonard’s relationship. Although he was on house arrest at the time, Leonard moved into her home in Richmond Hill a few weeks later.

By Shirley’s account, the first five months of their relationship were good. They cooked together and went out for dinner with Brooke. Leonard was a “very kind man” during those months, she said.

Then, in early 2012, Leonard was admitted to the hospital with a severe headache. Doctors diagnosed him with an autoimmune disease. His conditioned quickly deteriorated to the point where he fell into a coma and had to be placed on a ventilator.

While Leonard was receiving treatment at IU Medical Center, Shirley stayed with him every night. Once he was finally released, she spent months nursing him back to health.

By early May, Leonard was finally well enough to come home for good. With the return of his health had also come the return of an idea he’d first floated in February: burning down Shirley’s house for the insurance money.

*****

By Monserrate Shirley’s account, Mark Leonard first broached the idea of committing insurance fraud in February 2012.

"He just told me, 'I'm going to show you how to make money,’” Shirley said. “You know, Glenn’s house was set on fire for money. It was very easy. Gary Thompson was the one who set it. He got the money no question. He said it will be very easy for me because I don't have no criminal background. No claims. And it was going to be a small fire in the garage."

“I thought it was crazy, but I went along with him,” Shirley would later testify. “I said OK.”

Even before that conversation, though, Shirley said Leonard had urged her to increase the insurance coverage on her house. By her account, he’d done that within two weeks of moving in to her house in December 2011.

"We were in the house and he asked me, 'Whose house is this? Whose name was the house in?'” Shirley said. “I said it was in my name. He asked if John Shirley had anything to do with the house. I told him John doesn’t have no rights to the house anymore. He told me to show him my insurance papers. He looked at it and he said my house was under-insured… that I needed to raise the insurance more."

At the time, Shirley’s home in Richmond Hill was insured for $180,000, with an additional $150,000 to cover the contents. She says Leonard told her to raise it to $300,000.

“He said he was going to buy a lot of things for the house or bring stuff into the house and fix it up,” Shirley said. But, he never did.

Leonard also convinced Shirley to sell her car – the SUV she’d bought while still married to John Shirley – and get a much cheaper vehicle in exchange.

“Mark told me he needs to be driving a better car than what he was driving,” Shirley said. “So he took me to a rental car place and I rented a car with my credit card. Then he told me Ray Skillman wanted to buy my car for $10,000.”

Shirley said she agreed to take her 2006 GM Envoy to Ray Skillman, where Leonard’s friend Glenn Hults worked, and sell it. Leonard promised he would buy her a BMW, but she ended up with a 2000 Ford Taurus they purchased for $750.

Leonard eventually wound up driving a Cadillac STS. Shirley said he stole “a bunch of stuff” from the hotel where he was doing construction work and sold it at an auction. He used the proceeds to buy the Cadillac, she said.

During Leonard’s illness, Shirley thought the “crazy” idea of burning down her house had been forgotten. But at a pool party in July at Glenn Hults’ house, it reappeared.

"Mark told Glenn Hults, 'Tell Moncie how Gary set your house on fire. Tell her how easy they will give you the money. How it will be a small fire and not to worry,’” Shirley testified at Leonard’s trial. “Glenn said we better be careful, that he knew somebody who committed arson and got 75 years in prison. Then he asked who would get the money. Mark said, 'Of course, me. I always get the money.'"

Shirley said she told the two men that the idea was crazy and that she didn’t want to do it. Again, she thought the matter was settled – until Halloween of that year.

“Mark told me he talked to Gary Thompson and told Gary Thompson we were ready to do it,” Shirley said. “He was going to bring Gary Thompson to my house, and I was going to tell Gary Thompson that I was OK to do it.”

At this point, Shirley could have put a stop to the whole scheme. She could have refused to go along with it. She could have called the police. But she didn’t.

Instead, on Oct. 27, 2012, she boarded her cat Snowball for the first time, found a babysitter for her daughter Brooke and she and Leonard headed to the casino in Lawrenceburg.

Shirley said she understood the plan to burn down her house involved the home’s thermostat.

“I heard a conversation. Gary said they were going to do something to the thermostat, that it would click and send something to the fireplace to start a fire,” Shirley said.

Leonard told Shirley that if there were any sentimental things she wanted to keep, to get them out of the house beforehand. She gathered up some items and photos from when Brooke was a baby – plus the portrait of Brooke hanging over the fireplace – and Leonard and Thompson loaded them up into the back of a white van Leonard sometimes drove.

On the weekend of Oct. 27, as planned, Shirley and Leonard headed down to the Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg. Brooke was sent to stay at a friend’s house with instructions not to return home. Snowball was boarded.

Shirley said the couple danced and drank through the evening… and that Leonard became increasingly concerned when they never received a phone call.

“He kept asking, ‘Did no one call? Did no one call?’” Shirley said.

The next morning, the couple returned to Indianapolis. Rather than going straight home, they went to Gary Thompson’s house.

"When Gary came out of the house, Mark said, 'You can't even do a fire. You're a piece of shit. You can't even do anything,’” Shirley said. “Gary told him he was pulled over by a cop and that he couldn't get to the house. Mark said that couldn't be true. And I said that couldn't be true, too."

The first attempt having failed, Shirley says she tried to persuade Leonard to give up. But he wouldn’t.

“I told him this is crazy. My house is too big,” she said. “He said ‘this needed to be done and we’re going to do it.’ He never took no for an answer.”

*****

A second attempt was planned for the next Saturday, Nov. 3, 2012.

This time, Leonard planned to put cardboard on the fireplace so they didn’t lose gas when they turned it on. He also decided to get someone else involved: his half-brother Bob Leonard Jr.

“Mark was on the phone, and he was giving the address to someone to come to our house,” Shirley said. “I asked him who he was talking to. He said, 'My brother, Bob, you're going to meet him.' He said, 'He doesn't look like me. He would do anything I ask him to, so he's coming to the house tonight.’”

When Bob Leonard arrived, he and his brother went to the garage to talk about the job.

Bob Leonard, at the Allen County Courthouse during his trial in February 2016.

“When I walked in, he introduced me to Bob. Bob asked if I knew everything that was going to happen, and Mark said not to worry about it, that I knew enough and I was with them,” Shirley said.

The couple was planning on receiving $300,000 for the contents of the house, plus a car and motorcycle Mark Leonard had moved into the garage. They weren’t expecting to receive anything back from the insurance on the house itself because of the mortgage.

For his part in the scheme, Bob Leonard was to receive $10,000.

That weekend, Shirley again boarded the cat – this time at Arbor Lane Kennel. Brooke went to stay with Glenn Hults’ girlfriend Sharon. Leonard and Shirley again headed to the Hollywood Casino.

Before they left, Shirley said she saw Leonard turn on the fireplace’s gas valve. She said the plan was again for the thermostat to kick on, starting a fire.

After waiting all night for a phone call that again never came, Leonard and Shirley drove back to Indianapolis, where they went to a CVS to meet his brother.

Leonard and his brother took Bob’s white van to check out the house. He told Shirley to take their car and go pick up Brook.

On the way to Glenn Hults' house, Shirley received a call from Leonard telling her to book a hotel room, because the house was too cold. In reality, the house was still so full of natural gas it wasn’t safe to be inside.

At Glenn Hults' house, Shirley said she asked to speak with him privately. She said Leonard had told her there was going to be another attempt that night.

According to Shirley, Hults was becoming disillusioned with the whole scheme.

“Glenn said that between Mark and Gary they were going to blow up the whole neighborhood."

*****

Monserrate Shirley came home from working a 12-hour shift that Thursday. Nov. 8, 2012, to find her boyfriend and his brother had been busy.

Mark and Bob Leonard had been at the library researching a fire at a house the same size as Shirley’s. They also told her nobody was hurt in that fire.

Earlier in the week, Mark and Bob had replaced Shirley’s digital thermostat with an older, manual model. Even though Shirley eventually made them swap it back out, she said the older model stayed on one of the kitchen counters.

Realizing the men were dead-set on their plan, Shirley says one more time she tried to dissuade Leonard.

“I said, ‘Let’s don’t do this anymore. I’ll give you my 401k,’” Shirley said. “He asked me how much I have in my 401k. I said I thought there was $10,000 or $12,000 in there. He said ‘that’s not enough.’ He wanted $300,000.”

Later, sitting across from Leonard in a courtroom, Shirley said she would have given him her 401k in a heartbeat.

“I would have given him anything,” she said. “I was in love with him.”

The next day, on Friday, Nov. 9, 2012, Shirley packed a bag for the weekend before she headed to work. She left Brooke with Leonard, who was to take her over to Glen Hults’ house.

After her shift, Shirley went to Hults’ house to change and see Brook. She then met Leonard at a bar on the south side.

When she arrived, Mark and his brother Bob were sitting in the white van.

“[Mark] asked me if I had $40 to give Bob,” Shirley said. Then Mark said, 'We need to go get that part.'”

The last time she saw Bob before the explosion, Shirley said he was driving off in the white van. He’d left with another reminder from Mark to “go to Gary and get that part.”

On the way to the casino, Leonard told Shirley he and Bob had met someone who worked for the gas company who had “told them how to do it.”

When they arrived, Leonard told Shirley to tell the hotel desk they needed to stay an additional night. Their original reservation was just for that Friday. The hotel said there wasn’t a room available for them.

Leonard then went to the room saying he didn’t feel well and didn’t want to do anything that night. Shirley got ready and went down to the casino to play some slots by herself.

The next morning, they got up and had breakfast and a beer. Leonard played a game of blackjack.

For most of the day, though, Leonard and Shirley just sat at the casino bar. For hours, they sat there, Leonard regularly checking his watch.

After more than 10 hours at the bar, Shirley’s phone rang. It was her neighbor, John Duncan, asking if she was OK. He said something horrible happened to the neighborhood.

Shirley then called her friend and neighbor Gina Salas.

“She said, ‘Moncie, I’m glad you’re alive. There’s been a huge explosion,’” Shirley recalled. The “small fire” Leonard had promised had grown into something much, much larger.

Shirley told Salas she was on her way back right then.

“She said, ‘You don’t have a house to come back to.’”

This story is Chapter II of a three-part series. Click here to read Chapter III: 'But for Monserrate Shirley.'

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