SOUTH BEND, Ind. (WISH) – Emotional testimony in South Bend Tuesday, as witnesses took the stand in the first Richmond Hill explosion trial.
Multiple members of Dion Longworth’s family sat in the courtroom in St. Joseph County. They wore yellow, which was a wedding color for Dion and Jennifer Longworth. Jennifer Longworth’s dad was also in the courtroom.
The couple died in November 2012 when an explosion rocked the Richmond Hill neighborhood. Their neighbor, Mark Leonard, is on trial for 53 charges.
Tuesday marked the first day of testimony in the trial, and it was an emotional day.
Prosecutors took jurors back to that November night, showing them pictures of the fire and subsequent destruction. Jurors also heard the audio of dispatchers fielding 911 calls from all over Indianapolis, and beyond.
- FULL COVERAGE | Read more about the Richmond Hill explosion and criminal cases
There were 274 calls to 911 after the explosion on the south side of Indianapolis. Those calls were from security companies, who told police dispatchers burglar alarms were going off. One person thought it was a plane crash. Another person said it broke the windows in their home.
“Whatever it was, was huge,” one caller said. “It brought the entire neighborhood out of their house.”
Some people thought it was a gas explosion. Others simply weren’t sure.
“I’ve heard cars blow up, I’ve heard dynamite blow up, but I’ve never heard anything like this,” another caller said.
“I hope no one got hurt,” said another caller.
The first two witnesses – both veterans with Indianapolis Fire Department – had difficult moments recounting that night.
Indianapolis Fire Department Lt. Russell Futrell recalled the blast itself, saying he woke up to the noise. His fire station is nearby.
“There was just a loud explosion that actually physically rocked the building,” Futrell said, adding it was “nothing like I’ve ever heard before.”
He described waking up, looking out the window to the south, and seeing a large plume of what he described as debris, and smoke. His initial concern, he said, was that there is an airport in that direction.
“At that point I realized, we needed to go into action,” Futrell said, describing mobilizing his units before even dispatch could send them somewhere.
He said they worked to find out first, where the explosion came from, describing what they saw when entering the Richmond Hill subdivision: people walking in the streets, and along the sidewalks. The people motioned to him, to show him where the incident occurred.
Futrell walked jurors through what he heard, saw and experienced that November night.
The scene inside the Richmond Hill subdivision was “pretty amazing, actually,” Futrell said, choking up.
“As a firefighter you prepare yourself for things like this,” he said, pausing to compose himself. “As I said earlier, it was going to be a long night, and it was.”
Futrell said when he first showed up, he wasn’t sure if a house even had ever stood in the place where the explosion happened. He wondered if a playground was there, adding “I did not want to assume there was a house there, because frankly there were two other houses that had major damage to them.”
He said he realized it was a house after a moment, a house we now know as Monserrate Shirley’s, and that had been leveled.
He said he immediately began searching for people, and he said he started at the home of Dion and Jennifer Longworth. He said their house was ‘probably 50 percent collapsed,’ and he yelled for a response from those inside, but no one responded.
He said he didn’t think anyone was inside. “If I had known that, I would have risked everything to be inside there,” Futrell said, again getting emotional.
He then described running to the home directly north of the epicenter of the explosion, where he found a family of four, the Olvey’s, who were receiving help to get out of their home from neighbors and a man who identified himself as a Lawrence firefighter.
Futrell recalled seeing a woman trapped in there, and telling them ‘we need to get her out of here, because this house is going to burn down.’
Futrell said he then started working with crews to suppress the fire that was spreading rapidly. They didn’t leave until the next day around 4:30 or 5 AM.
Futrell said his team later returned to work at the scene of the explosion, describing a process of digging through debris, looking for an item he thought looked like a valve. They weren’t told what it was.
He also said he was approached later that night by the Olvey’s daughter (neighbors in the neighborhood) who told him they’d smelled gas the day before.
“It will be something for the rest of my life, I will live with,” said Futrell.
Indianapolis Fire Department Battalion Chief Mark Culver also described first feeling the explosion from his fire house at Thompson and Shelby Street.
“Due to the distance, and what I felt, I knew it had to be something major,” he said.
“To me, it was surreal,” Culver said. “I don’t know how to explain it. People were just walking around in their pajamas in a trance.”
Battalion Chief Culver described moving to the back of a house, where firefighters were trying to attempt a rescue in the back. He said firefighters were trying to put water on it, because it was burning, but they couldn’t extinguish it.
He said the house there had collapsed, but the victim, who we now know as Dion Longworth, was yelling through a gap, yelling for firefighters to help him out. Although his wife died instantly in the explosion, Dion was still alive when first responders arrived.
“My guys were as close as they could get,” Culver said, after stopping to compose himself on the witness stand. He added the fire kept coming, and the heat kept them off.
Jurors also heard the audio from firefighters on their radios, as they tried to save Dion.
Later in the afternoon, jurors heard from a dozen Richmond Hill residents affected by the explosion.
Frank Hiatt said he was the first person on Fieldfare Way after the explosion. He actually saw it happen; he was outside at the time.
He described the explosion as “a white flash, massive percussive boom, then percussive energy that hits your body all simultaneously.”
Hiatt said the explosion literally took him off of his feet. He then began to run toward the home, seeing that other homes were “shredded.”
He said he ran to help people and at first – heard silence.
“I was listening,” Hiatt said. “It was just silence.”
He added, it “gave me the impression I was standing in death.”
He said at that point, there was only small fire, but he watched it start to spread fast, as people came out of their homes as well.
Doug Aldridge, another Richmond Hill resident, also took the stand.
“I thought a car had hit our house,” Aldridge recounted. He described running out of his home, and seeing chaos, people coming out of their homes screaming.
Aldridge said the strength of the blast he felt, and the destruction he saw, made him believe he was going to see body parts all over the place.
On cross-examination, defense asked about him seeing Monserrate Shirley, the owner of the home that exploded at Mary Bryan Elementary School, where all residents headed to after the explosion. Aldridge said Shirley asked what happened, and Aldridge’s wife told Shirley that her home had blown up.
Aldridge said that Mark Leonard was there as well.
Jurors heard from a dozen Richmond Hill residents Tuesday, all describing what they heard and felt that night. Many said their doors were blown out, and they’d run toward the blast to help.
Defense attorneys have made it clear that Leonard won’t testify during the trial, which is expected to last four to six weeks.
Prosecuting attorneys painted a picture of greed Monday during opening statements, saying Leonard’s actions were intentional and driven by a desire to capture insurance money. Defense attorneys said Leonard was desperate and never meant to kill anyone.