Jan. 2003 – Field of Battle

Des Moines Register. Ken Fuson & Tom Suk. January 26, 2003.

Field of Battle: Neighbors try to find answers

Milo, Ia. – As baffled as their neighbors are about how two well-regarded Iowa farmers could be the characters in a murder case, this much is known: Tom Lyon and Rodney Heemstra were locked in a dispute over that most precious commodity in rural America – land.

As farmers feel increasing pressure to expand their operations, the competition to buy and rent more property has grown fierce.

“As one person told me, you don’t want to screw around with a farmer and his ground because, by God, it’s his, and he’ll let you know it,” says Warren County Sheriff Jim Lee. “I think the tenor in the community is that this seems like a terrible way to end a disagreement.”

Only two people could know exactly what happened on the cold morning of Jan. 13 in a farm field in southeastern Warren County.

One of them, Lyon, 52, is dead. The other, Heemstra, 42, is charged with first-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty, and he left the Warren County Jail on Friday afternoon, free on $500,000 bond that his parents posted.

“There’s only one person who can tell us now,” says the Rev. Keith Smith, pastor of Motor Friends Church and Lyon’s neighbor. “Everything else is speculation.”

The 840 people of Milo are left heartbroken and wondering how best to react. Both men were well-known, long-established farmers, and both have been described as devoted family men. Neither had a criminal record.

People here are reluctant to talk about the killing because they know both extended families. As in most small towns, everyone in Milo seems connected. One of Lyon’s former farmhands, for example, is married to Heemstra’s cousin.

Town officials are so concerned about rising emotions that they have scheduled a community meeting this week with victim-assistance counselors.

“It will take a long time for the community to get over this,” says Dwayne Dykstra, who lives near Lyon. “Time heals all wounds, but these are deep.”

The search for answers continues, in whispered conversations at Casey’s General Store, the South Central Co-Op, the new community center and other Milo gathering spots. So far, the speculation has focused on a disagreement over property, the same land where Lyon’s empty pickup truck was discovered almost two weeks ago and where authorities believe he was killed.

Disbelief hangs over every comment.

“You’d have to go back to the Old West to find somebody who was shot over a land deal,” the Rev. Smith says.

Friendly neighbor, serious farmer

Fifty black cows munch on the stubble of harvested cornstalks. Even in winter, frozen and idle, the land provides.

Tom Lyon owned those cows and rented the ground where they stood. For him, the property was perfect – nearly 320 acres, directly across the road from his house. He could check on the cows from his porch, where a large American flag has hung since the Sept. 11 terrorist attack.

Lyon and his wife, Ronda, lived in a square-mile section of the county known to locals as Motor, an unincorporated area that contains a Quaker church and 14 homes. The Lyons raised two children, now adults, on their farm.

Friends often smiled when they saw Tom Lyon approaching, because they never knew what to expect. They say he loved pranks and making people laugh. He referred to himself as the mayor of Motor, a long-standing joke.

When he wasn’t working, Lyon was a social fixture in Milo, grabbing a doughnut and soda pop at Casey’s (he didn’t drink coffee), or checking the corn and bean prices at the co-op.

“If you met him once, he knew you,” says Craig Amos of Indianola, who served with Lyon on the Warren County Fair Board.

His friends say Lyon had three passions: his family, his farm and the county fair. He served on both boards that operate the Warren County Fair, and he had a hand in everything from maintaining the buildings to mediating contestant disputes in the 4-H barns.

At the last board meeting he attended, in the first week of January, Lyon agreed to preside over the next selection of the Warren County fair queen.

“He couldn’t wait to tell people about that,” says Jo Reynolds, also a board member.

When it came to business, though, Lyon became serious, whether it concerned the fair’s budget or his farming operation.

“He understood budgets, and he understood money,” the Rev. Smith says. “He had a serious side to him. He was a farmer. He had to know budgets.”

Lyon grew up in Pleasantville and began farming in 1971. According to Warren County records, he is listed as owning about 390 acres, but he farmed more through leases or other arrangements with landowners. He also raised livestock. Cattle were his favorite.

“He was kind of what you aspired to be,” Amos says. “He was a great farmer, a great family man, and he raised two great kids.”

For several years, Lyon had rented the nearby pasture and cropland from Lucille Rodgers, an elderly woman who lived down the gravel road from his home.

Last year, Rodgers decided she wanted to sell the 318.5 acres, as well as two other buildings on the grounds – the home she lived in and the home she rented to Chris and Heather Talbot.

The Talbots live across the gravel road from Lyon’s house. Heather Talbot is Rodgers’ step-grandchild.

“Tom wanted to purchase the land,” Talbot says, “but all he wanted was the farmland.”

She says Rodgers determined it would be easier for her to sell the land and the homes together. And she had a buyer who was interested in both – another area farmer, Rodney Heemstra.

Heather Talbot says Lyon was disappointed, but not upset or angry, that someone else would own the property.

“It was more like, “I”m glad I didn”t buy it, because I didn”t want to make that kind of payment,” “” she says.

Heemstra wanted to take immediate possession of the property and not wait until Lyon’s lease ended, Talbot says. He wanted Lyon’s cows removed. Talbot says she doesn’t know why that was important to Heemstra.

“If I could answer that, that would be the million-dollar question,” she says.

Eager to expand

By all accounts, Rodney Heemstra was a man in a hurry to expand his farming operation.

“He didn’t walk, he ran,” says Chester Crouse, Milo’s mayor.

While Tom Lyon was a familiar presence, Heemstra was seen less often, usually at farm auctions or Southeast Warren school district activities involving his two sons.

“He was very hardworking,” says Dykstra, a furniture refinisher who lives near Milo. “Basically, that’s all he did is work all the time.”

Dykstra says Heemstra purchased his first piece of land while still a high school student, “so that ought to tell you how serious he was about it.”

Heemstra and his wife, Berta, live in a 1½-story, 1,090-square-foot frame house built in 1910. The home, about 1½ miles northwest of Milo, contains three bedrooms and one bath, court records show. The property includes three steel grain-storage bins, a dairy barn built in 1930, and two steel utility buildings where equipment is stored.

The Heemstras also own eight vehicles, court records show.

People in Milo describe Heemstra as aggressive in his pursuit of more land to buy and rent – and that, they say, could rub other farmers the wrong way, especially if they currently were renting the same piece of property or competing to buy the same land.

Andy Long, 29, Heemstra’s hired hand, testified at a bond-reduction hearing last week that Heemstra owns as many as 1,500 acres and farms 2,000 more under lease or crop-sharing arrangements. County records show Heemstra’s land holdings had grown significantly in the past three years.

U.S. Department of Agriculture records show that Heemstra owned or rented land in seven Iowa counties and received federal subsidy payments totaling $371,949 between 1996 and 2001.

That ranked him second among Milo farmers, 22nd in Warren County (Tom Lyon was No. 51) and one of the top 2,700 recipients of federal payments in the state.

Warren County Attorney Gary Kendell said at the hearing that Heemstra has a net worth of about $2 million, but Heemstra’s wife said the operation is saddled with “thousands and thousands of dollars in debt. I don’t know how much. Rodney keeps the books.”

Dykstra says he believes Rodney Heemstra was eager to expand in case his sons, Brian, 16, and Scott, 13, wanted to join the farming operation someday.

But Heemstra may have had an economic incentive as well.

Michael Duffy, an Iowa State University economist, is not familiar with the two farmers involved in the Milo shooting, but he said the competition for land has grown desperate as Iowa farmers try to maintain their income while being squeezed by tighter margins.

“People have gone to nursing homes and tried to get leases from people who are incompetent,” Duffy says. “They have tried to pick up leases at funerals. It’s gotten pretty bad.”

In other cases, farmers looking to rent land have sent letters to landlords, offering to pay $5 more an acre than the current renter.

The competition, Duffy says, “is pretty fierce, and it is causing hard feelings.”

Nobody in Milo has publicly accused Heemstra of the practices Duffy described, but something intensified the conflict between Heemstra and Lyon.

“The disagreement over the ground is maybe at the root of all this, but there may be some other things,” Sheriff Lee said.

He declined to elaborate.

Property changes hands

According to Heather Talbot, Lucille Rodgers agreed last summer to sell the 318.5 acres and the two properties to Rodney Heemstra.

Their arrangement, Talbot said, called for Heemstra to pay Rodgers when he took possession of the land on March 1. Rodgers has moved to Kansas and could not be reached for comment.

Several Milo-area residents believe the property sold for as much as $2,900 an acre, although there is no record to confirm that amount.

“It was a big sale,” Mayor Crouse says.

As Iowa law dictates, Rodgers notified Tom Lyon before last September that she was ending their rental arrangement. That allowed Lyon to continue using the property until March 1.

“I think Tom assumed he’d have possession of the farm until the first of March, and Rodney wanted it sooner than that,” says the Rev. John Long, pastor of the Chapel of Faith in Indianola.

Milo residents can only speculate about Heemstra’s intentions with the property. But they say everyone understood that Lyon had a legal right to keep his cows there until March 1. If Heemstra asked him to remove his cows, Lyon almost certainly refused, they say.

Friends knew the two men were feuding, but hard feelings are not uncommon when land changes hands. Usually, the Rev. Smith says, “you try to be neighborly about it.”

Mayor Crouse says, “It might get to the point where they’re calling each other names and not talking to each other, but I’ve never heard of anyone getting violent over it.”

A friend of Lyon’s, who declined to be identified, said Heemstra “was trying to rub it into Tom’s nose that he bought the property, but Tom didn’t care.”

Last fall, the water to the cattle was turned off on the property, and Lyon’s cows were forced for a brief time to drink out of a creek, Talbot says. She didn’t know who had turned off the water.

“Tom called Heemstra and told him to turn it back on,” she says. “Tom was upset about it.”

Dykstra says the relationship between the two men was tense – “I knew they had words before” – but he never would have predicted a violent outcome. Others in the community echo him.

“Tom had a temper,” Dykstra says, “but usually he’d just get mad and be over it. . . . There’s a lot of disbelief that this could even come to something like this. People just don’t understand why.”

Something was wrong

Tom Lyon was last seen at 7 a.m. on the 12-degree morning of Jan. 13, as he left home to check his cows and perform chores. His Ford pickup truck was found near a field gate later that morning.

When they heard he was missing, most of Lyon’s friends figured somebody had needed help and he had left with them. That’s the sort of person he was, they say.

At 2 p.m., Lyon was supposed to haul 35 calves from Charles Rodgers’ farm near Milo to the Humeston Livestock Auction. When he didn’t show up, everyone knew something was wrong.

“He doesn’t miss his appointments,” the Rev. Smith says.

More than 200 people, walking shoulder to shoulder, searched the land, as well as nearby fields. The search continued for 36 hours, over rough and brush-filled terrain.

On the afternoon of Jan. 14, searchers found a 50- to 60-foot trail of blood on property that Heemstra owns, about a mile south from where Lyon’s truck was parked.

According to information in a search warrant, they also found a Timex watch and one glove on the property. Ronda Lyon identified them as her husband’s. A matching glove was discovered behind Lyon’s truck.

Authorities obtained a warrant to search Heemstra’s land. Lyon’s body was discovered inside a 12-foot-deep cistern, or well. An autopsy determined that he had been shot once in the front of the head. The time of death was established as 8 a.m. Jan. 13.

At first, Lyon’s friends thought he had been killed by somebody making methamphetamine, the scourge of rural Iowa. When the Rev. Smith heard Heemstra had been charged, “I got sick to my stomach,” he says. “It’s even harder when it’s somebody you know.”

Heemstra was home during most of the two days that Lyon was missing, Heemstra’s wife testified at the bail-reduction hearing.

“I have no knowledge of what happened,” she said.

According to court papers, Heemstra told authorities that he had been carrying a loaded rifle in his truck “because of ongoing property disputes and related harassment by Lyon.”

Items seized from Heemstra’s home included three .22-caliber rifles, two .410-gauge shotguns, .22-caliber ammunition and shotgun shells. In addition, a sledgehammer was removed from a shed.

Heemstra admitted that he killed Lyon, the court records say. Authorities believe Heemstra shot Lyon, then dragged the body more than a mile, placing it in the well and concealing the opening with straw.

Blood was found either inside or on Heemstra’s Ford F-150 pickup truck, which also was seized, as well as on gravel rocks from nearby Nevada Street, according to results of the search warrant.

Heemstra’s attorney, Mason Ouderkirk, declined to comment on the case. Both families also have declined to comment.

Heather Talbot served with Lyon as a Belmont Township trustee. They helped solve fence disputes, among other things. She can’t imagine Lyon threatening anyone.

“No way on Earth would he do that,” she says.

In seven weeks, she says, Heemstra would have owned the disputed property. Lyon already had removed hay bales from the land, and he would have taken the cows somewhere else. She says Lyon realized he had to leave by March 1 and intended to do so.

“If Rodney just would have controlled himself, everything would have been fine,” Talbot says.

Community mourns loss

More than 1,100 people packed the First Assembly of God Church in Indianola on Jan. 18 for Lyon’s funeral. Sixty plant and flower displays surrounded the altar. A table near the front contained a John Deere hat and toy tractor, a family portrait, a folded American flag and an aerial photograph of the Lyon farm.

The mourners included several of Heemstra’s relatives. They heard the Rev. Smith describe Lyon as “one of the most uniquely likeable guys I’ve ever met.”

And he had a message for the Milo community:

“We have seen and experienced firsthand what can happen when emotions get the best of us. We’ve lost a friend. We’ve lost a husband. We’ve lost a dad. We’ve lost a brother. We’ve lost an uncle. We’ve lost a very special friend.”

Earlier this week, in the main courtroom on the second floor of the Warren County Courthouse, about two dozen friends and family of Heemstra contemplated their loss.

Escorted by two deputies, Heemstra was led into court for a bail-reduction hearing. He wore an orange jumpsuit emblazoned with “Warren County Jail” in black letters on the back. He shuffled because his legs were shackled. He looked at his wife and other supporters but did not address them. His reddened face looked somber and grim.

For nearly two hours, he cast his eyes downward as family members and friends described him as a reliable farmer and dedicated father.

“He is very respected,” said Robert McCauley, 64, a longtime neighbor. “He comes from a respectable family. I have never heard anything bad about him.”

Heemstra’s father, Neil, 66, said he had no doubts that his son would reappear in court if allowed to leave jail and resume control of the family business.

“He always follows through if he gives his word,” he said.

Kendell, the prosector, asked him, “Prior to Jan. 13, could you even imagine your son being charged with the crime he is now charged with?”

His voice very soft, Neil Heemstra replied, “No.”

The courtroom spectators included Lyon’s wife and several relatives. The Lyon and Heemstra relatives sat silently in different rows near the back of the courtroom. They did not appear to speak to each other.

Struggling to understand

Seven-year-old Hunter Talbot is having nightmares. He appears more withdrawn. He asks his mother difficult questions.

“” “Why?” is the big one that comes out of his mouth all the time,” Heather Talbot says. ” “Is Tom in heaven now? Can Tom see me from heaven?” ”

To Hunter, she says, Lyon was a grandfatherly figure. To her, he was the perfect neighbor.

“I still look across the road in the morning to see if he’s up, getting ready to check on the cows,” she says. “At night, I expect him to pull in and walk up to the house like he’s done for years. He’s not there, and it’s not right.”

Hunter has another question: Will the same man shoot his mom and dad?

“I told him I didn’t think that was something that was going to happen,” she says.

The Rev. Smith says Milo and the surrounding area will never be the same. He and others are worried that people are choosing sides as they await the trial, scheduled for April 2.

Other clergy are pleading for understanding.

“The sentiment I’ve been trying to pass on is, many good people make mistakes,” says the Rev. Howard Town of Promised Land Family Church in rural Milo.

Many residents expressed outrage Friday that Heemstra is free on bond. They say they can’t believe he could be planting crops again this spring if the trial is delayed, especially on the same land where Lyon is believed to have been shot. They imagine Ronda Lyon looking out her window and seeing Heemstra on his tractor across the road.

“I don’t think there should be any bond at all,” Talbot says. “It just plain stinks.”

Heemstra, she says, has until March 1 to pay for Lucille Rodgers’ land. Berta Heemstra testified last week that her husband had arranged financing for the farm sale. That was one of the reasons that she believes she was turned down by two banks in her attempt to borrow the $500,000 in cash needed to post bail for her husband.

“They denied me the money,” she said. “They said because of the situation and our current liability, they could not lend me the money.”

Heemstra was allowed to leave jail after his parents put up 300 acres of land from three plots. They filed a statement certifying that the land is worth $545,000 and is debt-free.

If Heemstra cannot complete the sale, Rodgers will retain her property. She likely will search for another buyer, relatives say. Given the strong demand, selling almost 320 acres shouldn’t take long.

For now, Tom Lyon’s cows still roam the disputed ground, chewing cornstalks and huddling together for warmth. Lyon’s friends and family have until March 1 to find a new home for them.

Then only the land will remain, fertile with possibility, awaiting spring and the hands of man.