SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — A jury convicted an Indianapolis man of murder, arson and insurance fraud Tuesday for his role in a house explosion that devastated a subdivision nearly three years ago, killing a couple living next door.
Mark Leonard, 46, showed no emotion as the judge read the jury’s verdict — guilty of all 53 counts. Prosecutors alleged Leonard was the mastermind behind the explosion that damaged or destroyed more than 80 homes in Indianapolis, plotting with his then-live-in girlfriend Monserrate Shirley and his half brother Bob Leonard to blow up the home for $300,000 in insurance.
John Longworth, whose son Dion and daughter-in-law Jennifer were killed in the explosion, said he’s glad Leonard won’t be able to hurt anyone outside of prison but took no satisfaction in the verdict.
“When the thing you want most is to have your child back, nothing makes it better,” he said. “To me it’s sad to see anyone throw away their life. So this is a person who basically threw away their life, and that’s sad.”
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Jennifer’s father, Don Buxton, said he didn’t know what word to describe how he was feeling other than relief.
“We can think about something else now for a few months,” he said. “I guess we’ll relax a few months and get ready for the next trial.”
The jury deliberated less than four hours over two days before returning with the verdict.
Prosecutors called 169 witnesses to testify against Leonard, and some became emotional on the stand. Firefighters described seeing Dion Longworth alive in the basement through a hole. Although they were able to grab one of his arms, Longworth was overcome by flames before he could be rescued.
“He was saying, ‘It’s so hot, so hot. Get me out! Please, get me out!” Indianapolis firefighter Richard Shirven said.
St. Joseph County Superior Court Judge John Marnocha will hear arguments Wednesday on whether Leonard should face life without parole on two counts of murder. Defense attorneys said they filed a motion to have a sentence of life without parole dismissed because they don’t believe prosecutors have proven the necessary aggravating factors.
Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said he believes Leonard will spend the rest of his life in prison no matter how Marnocha rules.
But defense attorney John Shircliff said he would argue there’s no “legal basis” for the judge to impose the harshest penalty prosecutors were seeking. Shircliff said the defense, which called only one witness during the trial, would appeal the verdict by referencing motions for mistrial that the judge denied.
Bob Leonard is scheduled to go on trial on Jan. 19 on the same charges his brother faced. His trial is being moved to Fort Wayne because of extensive media coverage, the same reason Mark Leonard’s trial was moved to South Bend. Trials for two others haven’t been scheduled.
Shircliff said he wasn’t surprised by how quickly the jury reached a verdict.
“If the jury believed there was intent to commit insurance fraud and believed that part of that was to burn the house, all the other counts fell into place,” he said.
Shircliff said he believes the most damaging evidence was the photo showing the damage the neighborhood sustained.
“When you see a picture of a neighborhood that’s been blown up, that’s a pretty damning piece of evidence,” Shircliff said.
The defense had questioned the credibility of Shirley, with Shircliff describing her as a “master liar.” Shirley, who accepted a plea deal and agreed to testify against her former boyfriend, said Leonard told her he was only planning a small fire.
Prosecutors said Leonard wanted more than a small fire after two previous unsuccessful attempts to burn down the house the previous two weekends. They said he filled the house with natural gas and then poured gasoline in two rooms to make sure the third try didn’t fail, using a canister in a microwave to ignite the blast.
Prosecutors told jurors they don’t believe Leonard intended to kill the Longworths but that by using a combination of natural gas and gasoline he should have known the possibility of someone dying.
John Longworth, who attended every day of the hearing, said he doesn’t plan to attend Wednesday’s hearing. He said for him this trial is over. He was looking forward to returning to his Indianapolis home.
“John and I used to walk through his flowers. I transplanted most of his flowers to my house. So I’ll probably go home and talk to him,” Longworth said. “I’ll go back and stand in the flowers and talk to my son.”