Photo by Matt Kryger from WTHR Chopper 13 via Imagn
At 11:11 p.m. on November 10, 2012, the southeast sky of Indianapolis flashed orange.
Houses shuddered. Sirens wailed. Social media lit up with rumors of a plane crash, a meth lab explosion—or had a bomb gone off?
In the otherwise quiet neighborhood of Richmond Hill, a blast not experienced in modern Indianapolis history—with the force of almost five tons of TNT—rocked a small community, wrecking homes and lives.
After a three-day emergency response, a yearslong investigation revealed foul play. At the center of the case, Mark Leonard, a womanizer with gambling debts who preyed on divorcees, hatched an arson plot for money with his girlfriend, Monserrate Shirley. In court, Shirley testified Leonard had promised to show her how to make a lot of money. “I thought it was crazy,” she told a jury, “but I went along with him.” Shirley upped her home insurance to $300,000 while Leonard crafted a plan to set the structure on fire. Leonard rigged a gas line and microwave, the couple boarded a cat named Snowball that belonged to Shirley’s 12-year-old daughter, and Shirley and Leonard headed out of town to the Hollywood Casino in Lawrenceburg for the night where they awaited a payday.
But what happened next far exceeded a grubby insurance scam. Two Richmond Hill residents—Dion and Jennifer Longworth—died. Twelve people were injured. Five hundred calls flooded local 911 operators at county dispatch. Thirty-three houses were destroyed to the tune of $4 million in damages. It was a plot worthy of a Coen brothers–like true-crime tale—down to Leonard’s attempt to hire a hitman from jail to kill a witness—and a multiyear prosecution eventually led to two trials, more than 5,000 pieces of evidence, and the convictions of Shirley, Leonard, and his half-brother, Robert Leonard Jr., an accomplice. Mark Leonard died in 2018 while serving two life sentences at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. Shirley, who is serving 50 years in the Indiana Women’s Prison, declined an interview request. Attempts to interview Robert Leonard—serving life without parole—were unsuccessful.
Amid the darkness of the saga, moments of humanity and kindness and Hoosier hospitality emerged, recalled many who lived through the experience and shared their stories. Citizens rushed to a staging area near the scene after the explosion to donate clothes, water, and food. A reporter who covered the explosion and its aftermath came to enjoy a Friendsgiving with one of the Richmond Hill families. Neighbors became forever bonded by their trauma, banding together to buy Christmas gifts for the child of one of the perpetrators. Here, those at the center of the ordeal recount it a decade later.
DOUG ALDRIDGE, Richmond Hill resident: I was upstairs in my bedroom watching the Notre Dame-Boston College game. My wife and son were downstairs watching something on another TV. I just got up off the bed and heard a loud explosion.
RAFAEL SÁNCHEZ, investigative reporter with WRTV-6: It was a beautiful November night—unseasonably warm.
NICOLE WEATHER, Richmond Hill resident: I was just drifting off to sleep when it happened. It felt like my husband took our refrigerator and threw it down the stairs.
RUSS FUTRELL, lieutenant, Indianapolis Fire Department: We had just finished watching the Notre Dame football game. It was shortly after 11 o’clock at night, and things were quieting down around the firehouse. Then we heard a huge explosion.
ALDRIDGE: Like a bomb.
FUTRELL: We thought maybe a vehicle hit the firehouse—it just shook the whole firehouse.
SÁNCHEZ: A photographer and I began heading there from Broad Ripple when we got the news.
ALDRIDGE: I ran out of the bedroom. I could hear my son’s car alarm going off. I thought someone had hit his car and then our house.
WEATHERS: I saw a big fireball in the sky. The house that exploded was directly behind us. I ran back inside and the house was just in shambles.
SÁNCHEZ: People were claiming that a meteorite hit the neighborhood. I thought, Come on.
MARIO GARZA, captain, Indianapolis Fire Department: I live a couple of miles from the site. My house shook, and it felt like a car had run into the house. I happened to have my department radio with me and got on the radio, listened to the traffic, and realized that whatever was going on was close. I self-dispatched and went down to the scene. I could see an orange glow.
FUTRELL: Outside of the firehouse, I looked to the south and saw a huge plume of debris in the air. I got on the intercom at the firehouse and I told my crew, “We’re going to go and investigate what that was.” We thought it maybe could have been an airplane crash at [the Indy South Greenwood Airport].
ALDRIDGE: I looked over our [upstairs] balcony, and I saw my wife and son on the floor. They had dove onto the floor when they heard the explosion. I went down to check on them, then looked out my front window. My house faces north towards the explosion, and all I could see was … it looked like a house was missing. A bunch of debris all over the road. I yelled at my son, I said, “I think the house down the street blew up. Come on.” Ninety-nine percent of the time, I have shoes on in the house. This time I was barefoot, but ran down there as fast as I could.
JEFF WAGNER, detective sergeant, Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department: I was on duty. I was actually out in the 2500 block of North Meridian Street with my partner. We were on a death investigation of a homeless person. We were standing outside. We did not hear the explosion. What we heard was all the radio traffic afterward.
ALDRIDGE: People were coming out of the houses just kind of in a panic, screaming hysterically. I told my son to check on those neighbors. I went further toward Monserrate Shirley’s house, in the front yard, and stood in glass and wood and everything else. Nothing was left of this house except the furnace in the garage—and they had a car in there, too. That was it. A little flame was coming out of the furnace, and I’m thinking to myself, There is no way anybody could survive that. I looked over to the right, which would have been the Longworth house—half of that was missing. And I thought, Boy, there’s not a lot I can do there.
GREG BALLARD, former Indianapolis mayor: I was at an event at Lucas Oil Stadium. I was wearing a tuxedo. My security guy got an alert. We left immediately to go down there.
FUTRELL: There were people in robes and various modes of dress coming down and trying to find out what happened in their neighborhood. It was like a tornado where you have two-by-fours sticking into garages and into vinyl siding. To use the cliche, it looked like a bomb went off.
ALDRIDGE: I got another set of neighbors out of their house. Then I ran home for my shoes, but when I got there, I couldn’t find my wife. Turns out that when my son and I ran out the door, our golden retriever, Brix, took off. My wife was trying to find him and ended up chasing him all over the neighborhood. So I put my shoes on, went back outside, and the first fire engine pulled right up in between the Shirley’s and the Longworth’s. The guys jumped out and just, like, froze.
FUTRELL: When you’re in the moment, you’re going through what you’re trained for—for years and years or decades and decades. I’d had just over 22 years on the department, and I fell back on the basics of what we’re supposed to do, which is search and rescue, fire suppression, and property conservation.
ALDRIDGE: When the next fire truck arrived, I flagged the crew and showed them where the hydrant hookup was in front of my house. They started evacuating people because there was a massive fire. Some of the firefighters had set up a staging area at Mary Bryan Elementary School, and, by that time, a lot of media people had shown up there, too. People were walking out of the neighborhood—it looked like something from The Walking Dead.
SÁNCHEZ: People emerged from clouds of smoke, coming out with bird cages and dog kennels and their kids in their pajamas. It was like a sci-fi movie.
BALLARD: We got there about 11:30 p.m., and a school was already opened for the victims once I got there. That’s such a classic Indianapolis story. There was a nurse on site. I walked through the neighborhood about 10 minutes after I arrived. One of the things I remember noting was, There’s no plane here. I do remember telling the press as soon as I got back from that little walk that there’s no plane here, because that was the main speculation that was going on at the time.
TROY RIGGS, former director of public safety, Indianapolis: What was so impressive was not only the response from emergency personnel who responded to the scene, but also the response from Indianapolis residents. They saw the significance of this from the first report. It was amazing how many bottled waters and pieces of clothing showed up. They were doing this on their own before we even made an ask for it.
ALDRIDGE: All of the sudden, it was three in the morning, and these people just start bringing stuff to the school. Water and snacks and food.
RIGGS: The hot spots kept popping up. Our fire department worked on it throughout the night.
FUTRELL: You’re [fighting a fire], and that turns into one hour, one hour turns into three hours, and three hours turns into six or seven hours.
RIGGS: There was somebody from the U.S. Army, maybe a reservist or someone that saw what was going on and saw a need for traffic control. To this day, I don’t know who that was, but that person directed the traffic for hours. Before we had a chance to say thank you, the need died down and they left. Numerous things like that happened.
WAGER: Several hours later, after the fire department knocked down all the fire, they discovered that there were deaths involved. I was on duty as the late-shift homicide supervisor.
ALDRIDGE: I called my sister and asked her to pick us up; she lives in Greenwood. This was about 2:30 a.m. While we were waiting, Monserrate and [Mark Leonard] showed up. He wasn’t saying a whole lot. But she was in a freakin’ panic and crying. My wife asked her what happened. “Moncy, your house blew up.” I didn’t know it at the time, but those two knew what had really happened. Monserrate was putting on a good show.
Almost immediately, authorities suspected criminal intent based on Leonard’s prior history with insurance fraud, which investigators discovered the night of the explosion. But they kept that information from the public to see how an unsuspecting Shirley and Leonard would handle their alibi as they spoke with reporters. Detectives noticed early on that someone had removed a valve from Shirley’s gas line, which regulated the amount of gas coming into the home. Likewise, a device called a step-down regulator, which also modulated gas pressure flowing into ovens and furnaces, was missing.
WEATHERS: We’ve lived in Richmond Hill since 2001. When we moved in, we were the only house on our street. Five years later, everything was built. It was a nice neighborhood, very quiet. Never really had any troubles.
ALDRIDGE: We went to my sister’s house and stayed up all night. We were just waiting to hear something. We were looking at Facebook and flipping through all the TV channels. Channel 8 was the first one to come on with a news program on Sunday morning. They had their helicopter up. I saw the footage, and I just started bawling. I hadn’t realized it before, but it looked like someone had dropped a bomb in the middle of our neighborhood.
WAGER: When I arrived on the scene, I met with the investigators, the arson guys, and the fire department who was assisting us in the extraction of the bodies. I talked to one of my federal homicide detectives who had been an arson investigator. He was sitting on the scene in the driveway of the Shirley residence, and I walked up to him. We started talking and said he’d already looked up a couple of things on the computer. And he had found that Mark Leonard, Shirley’s boyfriend, had a prior [outside of Marion County] for insurance fraud. That was the first little thing—a red flag that makes you think that something is not right.
RIGGS: We were sifting through a debris field that was as large as the neighborhood and looking for evidence that could have been as small as a one- or two- or three-inch pipe.
WEATHERS: My cousin had breast cancer. And when my aunt was alive, she gave me her Precious Moments Fight Like a Girl figurine, because I also had breast cancer. It was right by my husband’s office, where windows had exploded. It didn’t fall off. It was miraculous. I felt like I had an angel there.
BALLARD: By the next day, investigators already knew what happened. They told me but they didn’t let on.
WAGER: Jennifer Longworth was upstairs and Dion Longworth was downstairs in the basement when the explosion occurred. The plasma ball basically exploded the house. She fell all the way through into the basement amid rubble but died almost immediately from the concussive effects of the actual explosion. They had a good security system that was actually recording. The whole event of Dion’s death was recorded. The firemen couldn’t get to him. It was horrible to listen to.
BALLARD: I went and talked to the firefighters maybe a couple of weeks after it happened. They were taking it very, very hard.
RIGGS: We were treating this as a homicide investigation. As the investigation continued to grow, evidence continued to mount.
WAGER: Within a few hours, we had the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives going through the debris, and they began to discover anomalies. The microwave [in Monserrate Shirley’s home, the epicenter of the explosion] should have been crushed, but hadn’t been. Its door had been blown off. That was just another little piece [to the puzzle].
DENISE ROBINSON, supervisor, special crimes unit/homicide coordinator, Marion County Prosecutor’s Office: Sunday night, probably about nine, I got a phone call from Detective Wager. I thought maybe he was calling about a search warrant or with some technical question, but he prefaced the conversation by saying, “I think we have a problem out here.” As soon as he said those words, I knew that things for me were going to change. By Monday morning, I was on the scene. There were still some fires going. You could smell the gas. What I remember, probably the most, was that it looked like a war zone.
WAGER: When they got to finally digging through the rubble, they found the manifold for the gas inlet that was actually inside the [Shirley] house. I don’t know if you’re familiar with gas manifolds, but you have a little round thing that’s called a step-down regulator attached to the end of an iron pipe. So when they found the iron pipe that belonged in the Shirley residence, it did not have a regulator on it. What that told me was that somebody was monkeying around with the plumbing in the house and that we were looking at some real criminal intent.
ROBINSON: I was on the site day and night for a month. We had the command tent set up. We had evidence vans. We did a very good job the first couple of weeks of shielding from the media that I was even there. If they had seen me, they would have known it was a homicide investigation. And we were keeping that close. I don’t think we released it as a homicide investigation for over a week. If I was going in and out of the subdivision, I was in the backseat of a car laying down. We didn’t want Monserrate Shirley and Mark Leonard to know what was going on. They were already coming out making statements through lawyers and so forth, and we wanted to let them talk. We wanted to let them think that they were getting away with something.
SÁNCHEZ: In the early days, we all thought, Oh my goodness, Monserrate is a victim. Her home exploded. She really led us to believe that she was a victim. And she would turn out to be a victim of psychological abuse by her boyfriend.
ROBINSON: Snowball was Monserrate Shirley’s cat. She boarded Snowball the weekend of the explosion. Then we found out that she had boarded it at two other places the two weeks before, which led us to discover that there had been two previous attempts to blow up the house. That strengthened our case about this being intentional. Shirley and Leonard made arrangements to stay at a hotel and casino and sent Shirley’s 12-year-old daughter to stay with a friend. They removed numerous personal items from the residence—televisions and furniture, for example. They removed the step-down regulator from the gas line inside the house so that the flow of gas from the meter to the appliances was no longer restricted. They poured gasoline in a couple of rooms inside the house to ignite the natural gas. Our theory of the case was that they put a metal bottle in the microwave and the microwave had a 24-hour timer, which had been set for 11 p.m.
GARZA: I’ve been on this job for 36 years. Just when you think you’ve seen the worst in people, you haven’t. As firefighters, we generally see the worst of what people can do to people, and you kind of get numb to the fact that people just can be so cruel to each other.
ALDRIDGE: We moved here in 2001. I saw all these houses built. To watch them get torn down, that was awful. Once they finally cleaned off all those lots, they put a big fence around Moncy’s lot and tried to cover it up. I called it the freak show after a while because everybody wanted to come by and look at it.
FUTRELL: It was, by far, the largest event that I’ve been on, the weight of the magnitude of it. The number of homes that were damaged overall: 80-plus homes.
GARZA: It’s one of those once-in-a-lifetime investigations.
ROBINSON: I still run into people who obviously remember it and ask me questions.
RIGGS: In my years of running events as large as sporting events with hundreds of thousands of people, nothing was ever as complicated as Richmond Hill in my 30-year career.
GARZA: For me, as a fire investigator, that’s the biggest case I’ve had. I’ve been to court several times. But this one was an all-consuming case that lasted several years to get it to the court and to get a conviction.
WAGER: There was a witness who came forward and said that they had spoken with Mark Leonard before the explosion and that the night before he was surfing online for a Lamborghini—a $300,000 car.
ROBINSON: I don’t remember my opening statements, exactly. But the case boils down to greed, pure and simple. For Monserrate, the case was one of misplaced love.
ALDRIDGE: I had to testify. The prosecutor came to everybody’s house beforehand and said, “Try to be yourself and give a truthful answer.” By that time, I couldn’t hardly talk about it anymore. My wife sent me to see a psychologist, because every time something would come on, I would feel awful and just start crying. So once they got me up there on the stand, I caved like a deck of cards.
WAGER: There were several tear-jerking moments during the trial.
ALDRIDGE: We were very lucky. Two people died, and others had some minor injuries, but it could have been worse. Leonard could have killed a lot of people. That silly son of a bitch tried to kill me all over $300,000.
RIGGS: Hoosier hospitality was on full display. The residents of the community held a dinner in honor of our first responders. And then people in the community realized Shirley’s 12-year-old daughter was a victim of what her mom did, too. They knew that her Christmas was most likely going to be miserable. And even though they were dealing with homes that had been damaged, they bought Christmas gifts for this young lady. No one really knows that story. That’s the type of citizens and the type of Hoosier hospitality that I’ve never experienced in 30 years of public safety.
WEATHERS: The neighborhood just got so close after the explosion. During COVID, when we were all isolating in our own homes, we had cabin fever and we all started sitting in our driveways with a radio on and we’d grab some beers or wine or whatever and firepits, and we’d all sit in our own driveways and all talk to each other that way.
SÁNCHEZ: For at least a couple of years after the explosion, I would have Thanksgiving with one of the families. To me, the families of Richmond Hill became an extended family to me.
GARZA: What I remember about those days is the family and the parents of Jennifer and Dion Longworth, and not being able to do anything to ease their pain. They came to the scene quite often. They wanted to collect certain things that were special to them that reminded them of their kids. At times, they would cry. I would hold them. Sometimes you just can’t find the words.