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Ind. home explosion now homicide investigation

9:05 AM, Nov 20, 2012   |    comments
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INDIANAPOLIS -- Law enforcement officials Monday confirmed what many residents at the site of a deadly home blast on Nov. 10 suspected: foul play.

Officials made clear that they think the home explosion that killed two people and damaged 86 houses in the Richmond Hill subdivision was not an accident.

"At this time we're here to inform you that we're turning this into a criminal homicide investigation," Gary Coons, chief of the Indianapolis Department of Public Safety's Homeland Security division, said at a news conference.

MORE: Homeowner: Faulty furnace may have caused Ind. blast

But Coons and other officials declined to say why investigators from the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives and the Indianapolis Fire Department came to that conclusion.

Marion County Prosecutor Terry Curry said that the continuing investigation includes witness interviews and search warrants and that authorities are seeking information about a white van seen in the area.

Officials also announced two rewards are being offered -- one for $1,000 from Crime Stoppers of Central Indiana and another for $10,000 from ATF -- for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the blast.

"If anyone has information about a white van seen in the Richmond Hill subdivision the afternoon of Nov. 10 ... we ask that such information be communicated" to authorities, Curry said.

Some Richmond Hill residents said they were saddened but not surprised at the developments.

MORE: Blast levels Indianapolis homes; 2 dead

"Most people figured that something like this had to be more than an accident," said Doug Alridge, who runs a crime watch program in the area. "Especially with the large police presence that's been there all week."

For about three weeks, Alridge said, he had seen a white van in the neighborhood and in front of the house that is considered the epicenter of the blast. He said it was a windowless work van, about 15 years old.

"It was out there about every other day," said Alridge, who did regular patrols of the neighborhood. "But you don't just see a van and automatically say, 'That's suspicious.'"

Chris Sutton, 29, an electrical engineer who lives in the neighborhood, said it "was kind of scary" that the explosion might have been criminal.

"But people were beginning to think that way anyway," he said. At the same time, he said, "it gives us peace of mind."

"We wish it didn't come to this but it is beginning to answer some questions," he said.

The explosion flattened five homes and damaged 81 more of the 125 homes in the subdivision.

Earlier Monday, funeral services were held for the two killed in the blast, Dion and Jennifer Longworth, a couple in their mid-30s who lived in a home adjacent to the epicenter. Hundreds of family members and friends flooded St. Barnabas Catholic Church to pay their respects.

Authorities did not provide any information about possible targets of the probe.

Under Indiana law, a murder charge could be filed in connection with the death of the Longworths if investigators find the explosion was the result of arson.

Much of the focus of the investigation so far has been on the home of Monserrate Shirley, where the blast is thought to have originated.

Attorney Randy Cable, who represents Shirley, said before the announcement that he and his client wouldn't comment about it.

"I don't know what they're doing so I don't have any reaction," Cable said. "My clients have been hounded to death and don't really have anything to say."

Shirley, 47, was out of town the weekend of the blast with her boyfriend, Mark Leonard, visiting a casino. Her daughter was staying with friends, and their cat had been boarded.

Shirley told the The Indianapolis Starlast week she was in shock after the explosion, which investigators say caused an estimated $4.4 million in damage.

Shirley has said she doesn't know why her house exploded, and has denied assertions made by her ex-husband, John Shirley, that the home's furnace was malfunctioning and could have caused the blast.

Shirley had said she was having problems with her home's heat several weeks ago, but that the thermostat had been replaced and the heat restored. Since then, she said, there hadn't been any other gas-related issues.

She did say, however, that her daughter smelled something in the garage which she thought smelled like gas. Shirley said she and Leonard could not smell it, though.

At a Nov. 12 news conference, Citizens Energy spokeswoman Sarah Holsapple said there had been no complaints about any furnace trouble at that home. Meter readings taken in late October, Holsapple said, had also been normal.

State Farm Insurance, which insured Shirley's home, according to her ex-husband, declined Monday to discuss details of its investigation.

Leonard, 43, has a lengthy criminal record dating to 1992. He has been convicted of several felonies, including intimidation, stalking, operating a vehicle while intoxicated with a prior conviction, theft, dealing in marijuana and possession of cocaine or a narcotic drug, according to Marion County court and Indiana Department of Correction records.

He was sentenced to nearly five years in prison for some of those offenses, according to department of correction.

In 2007, Shirley and her then-husband, John Shirley, filed jointly for Chapter 13 bankruptcy. Court records show they had liabilities of nearly $410,000 and assets of about $316,000.

Among their liabilities were two mortgages on the house, on which they owed a total of $225,794. The house's value was listed as $230,000, according to court records.

The house was listed for $149,900 in late 2011 as a possible short sale, but it was pulled off the market in March at the request of the owner, according to real estate listings. The house had a gas furnace and a wood-burning fireplace with gas starter, according to descriptions.

The couple divorced in February 2011. According to divorce records, Monserrate Shirley, an intensive care nurse, assumed full responsibility for paying the home's mortgage. John Shirley is required to pay $1,000 a month in child support.

Cable said that as far as he knows, Monserrate Shirley is current on her mortgage payments.

Shirley's bankruptcy attorney, John Steinkamp, told the Star this week that the couple lost bankruptcy protection when they prematurely stopped making payments to the trustee.

Police responded to a domestic disturbance at the home in February 2011, according to an Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department report. John Shirley's then-girlfriend told police that Monserrate Shirley, 47, had assaulted her, according to the report.

Monserrate Shirley faced misdemeanor battery charges in March 2011 and a judge issued a warrant for her arrest, according to Marion Superior Court records, which still showed the case as open Monday.

However, it's unclear whether those records are accurate. Shirley told The Star that his girlfriend later declined to press charges against Monserrate Shirley.

In another incident in June 2011, John Shirley was accused of assaulting his girlfriend, according to a police report. Court records show that confinement and domestic battery charges filed against him by the prosecutor later were dismissed.

By Tim Evans, Tony Cook, Jill Disis, Carrie Ritchie and Jon Murray, The Indianapolis Star

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