INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Three people charged in a gas explosion that devastated an Indianapolis neighborhood deliberately set up the deadly blast to collect a big insurance payout, authorities said Friday.
The home's owner, Monserrate Shirley; her boyfriend, Mark Leonard; and his brother, Bob Leonard, were arrested Friday and charged with murder, arson and other counts in the Nov. 10 blast that killed two people.
Shirley, 47, was facing mounting financial woes, including $63,000 in credit card debt and worsening bankruptcy proceedings, court documents say. And a friend of Mark Leonard's told investigators Leonard said he had "lost a ton of money" — about $10,000 — at a casino some three weeks before the explosion.
Investigators believe the trio had actually tried but failed to blow up Shirley's home the weekend before the successful timed explosion, according to Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry. The fiery blast destroyed five homes, including Shirley's, and caused widespread damage to dozens of others in the Richmond Hill subdivision in the far south side of the city.
Curry called the explosion a "thoroughly senseless act" that killed Shirley's next-door neighbors. He said the victims, John Dion Longworth, a 34-year-old electronics expert, and his 36-year-old wife, second-grade teacher Jennifer Longworth, were "in the prime of their lives."
Randall Cable, the attorney for Shirley and Mark Leonard, said he was stunned by their arrest.
"I'm just as surprised as everyone else that they've made an arrest. My clients have consistently indicated their innocence," he said.
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.
Curry said his office would review whether to pursue the death penalty or life in prison without parole against the three, who are scheduled to appear in court Monday.
Shirley and Mark Leonard, 43, also face two counts of conspiracy to commit arson, while Bob Leonard, 54, faces a single count. Curry said the conspiracy charges stem from the failed explosion.
He said investigators determined that Shirley's home filled up with gas after a gas fireplace valve and a gas line regulator were removed. A microwave, apparently set to start on a timer, sparked the explosion, he said.
On Friday, workers using heavy equipment were removing debris from razed homes in the neighborhood.
Doug Aldridge, the head of the Richmond Hill's crime watch group, said after a neighborhood meeting that the allegations are "more than we anticipated."
"Sometimes money makes people do stupid stuff," Aldridge said.
Investigators found that in December 2011, Shirley's home insurance policy for personal property was increased to $304,000 — an amount that was in addition to the coverage for the home itself, according to court documents.