Investigator: House explosion planners didn’t know its force

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Whoever filled an Indianapolis home with natural gas and poured gasoline in two rooms probably did not know the mixture would create the powerful explosion that gutted a neighborhood three years ago, killing two neighbors and damaging more than 80 homes, an independent fire investigator testified Wednesday.

Steve Shand, founder of Shand Forensics Investigations in Spencerville, 20 miles northeast of Fort Wayne, testified in the trial of Mark Leonard, who prosecutors say plotted with his girlfriend and half brother to blow up the home to collect insurance money. Shand told jurors that the mixture of natural gas and gasoline turned into a “perfect storm.”

“I don’t think they had enough knowledge to do the catastrophic explosion they had,” he said.

Shand was a witness for the prosecution, but defense attorney David Shircliff elicited answers that seemed to back the defense’s contention that Leonard planned a small fire. Leonard is charged with murder, arson, conspiracy to commit arson and conspiracy to commit insurance fraud in the Nov. 10, 2012, explosion that killed neighbors Jennifer and John “Dion” Longworth.

Shand testified he couldn’t replicate the explosion in 50 years if he tried, saying there are too many variables.

“There are people in my field who try and try and try to make an explosion like this, and it just goes poof,” he said.

Shand is among the last people listed to testify for prosecutors but was the first to say gasoline was used in the explosion. Shand said gasoline was probably added as a “redundancy measure” to ensure the fire would continue after the initial blast.

Leonard’s live-in girlfriend, Monserrate Shirley, testified last week that Leonard had tried to burn down the house down the previous two weekends and became angry when he failed. Shirley has pleaded guilty to two conspiracy charges as part of a plea agreement and faces a possible sentence to 20 to 50 years in prison.

Leonard’s half brother Bob Leonard is also accused of participating in the conspiracy. A retired Citizens Energy Group valve mechanic testified Wednesday that the half brothers had asked him about how much natural gas it would take to fill a house.

“I told them it’s like a balloon and that once it gets full it’s going to blow up,” said Arthur Kirkpatrick, who also is the part-owner of an Indianapolis bar.

Kirkpatrick said he had met Bob Leonard, who faces the same charges as his brother, once before and that the Leonards visited his bar the day before the explosion. He said they asked him about the differences between propane and natural gas and whether a regulator for a natural gas line into a home would continue to work even if there was a problem with a gas line inside the house.

The jury was shown video of the three men talking in the bar. Kirkpatrick said he wasn’t suspicious because people are always asking him questions about natural gas.

Superior Court Judge John Marnocha told the jury he expects testimony in the trial to be completed Thursday, with closing statements on Monday and jury deliberations beginning Tuesday morning.

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