Basement a fiery coffin for arson plot

By James Quiggle
December 23, 2015

Basement a fiery coffin for arson plot

Searing flames closed in on Dion Longworth. He was trapped in the basement of his burning home, desperately trying to escape a wall of flames creeping toward him.

Firefighter Richard Shirven locked with him hand and arm with him through a small debris-choked hole in the wall. Shirven tried to yank aside the baking, blackened debris and pull Dion from the devouring flames. His path was impassibly, fatally blocked.

“It’s so hot, it’s so hot. Please get me out of here,” Longworth begged just before the flames consumed him.

Mark Leonard and his girlfriend Monseratte Shirley lived in the home next door in the cozy Indianapolis neighborhood of Richmond Hills.

Bludgeoned by credit card, mortgage and gambling debts, Leonard masterminded a plot to burn down the place for a $300,000 insurance windfall.

He botched the scheme. The fire exploded with the force of a drone strike. The blast leveled the house, incinerated the next-door neighbors and blew up much of the neighborhood.

Subdivision leveled

At least 80 homes throughout the subdivision were damaged, and about 30 needed demolishing afterward. A dozen neighbors were injured, and $5 million worth of damage was caused.

The pair opened the shutoff valve to a natural-gas fireplace. He rigged a timer to start the microwave oven and ignite the volatile fumes, mixed with gasoline they’d spread around.

“It’s so hot, it’s so hot. Please get me out of here,” Longworth begged just before the flames consumed him.

Dion and Jennifer Longworth’s house next door took the brunt.

The home was 80-percent devoured by flames when firefighters arrived. Jennifer, a second-grade teacher, was upstairs in the bedroom and died instantly. The second floor had pancaked. Flames still chewed at the exposed, baking first-floor platform. A fireball was building in the basement.

The first-floor platform caved downward, and the fireball consumed him. Dion was gone, the basement his coffin.

Prosecutors wove a meticulous case at trial. Evidence piled up relentlessly.

Leonard and Shirley doubled the home’s insurance to $300,000 before the fire. Shirley boarded Snowball their cat at a kennel the night of the blaze. Shirley had her daughter stay with a babysitter. The couple spent the night at a casino out of town to coin an alibi. And they removed personal items such as family photos beforehand as well.

Exploded like TNT

The built-up gas equaled three tons of TNT, an expert testified. Some neighborhood residents suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. They and their children had trouble sleeping, and even going to school or work.

Leonard tried to rub out key state witness Mark Duckworth. The pair were close friends for 20 years. Yet Leonard told him about the insurance plot. Duckworth knew too much; he had to go.

Leonard tried to hire a hitman, who turned out to be an undercover officer.

Leonard received life without parole. Shirley will be sentenced later.

Deputy prosecutor Denise Robinson issued a warning to other would-be insurance arsonists. “We can say based upon what we've done here, ‘You better think twice before you engage in this kind of conduct or there will be a very heavy penalty to pay.’”

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