Feb. 2006 – Payments seen in ’06 in Lyon civil suit

Des Moines Register. Kevin Dobbs. February 8, 2006.

Payments seen in ’06 in Lyon civil suit

A Milo farm wife awarded $11.5 million in a wrongful-death lawsuit against the neighbor who murdered her husband could see some of the money this year, her lawyer said.

Ronda Lyon’s attorney, Don Beattie, said she might never receive the full amount, but she will fight for several thousand acres of farmland and other assets owned by Rodney Heemstra and his family. Heemstra was convicted of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Tom Lyon, 52, in 2003.

Warren County Judge Sherman Phipps handed down the verdict in Ronda Lyon’s civil case last week. No one tracks judgments statewide, but the amount is believed to be among the largest of its kind in Iowa. “This is a big one,” said Brad Lint of the Iowa Trial Lawyers Association. “I’m not familiar with one that’s bigger.”

The $11.5 million covers Tom Lyon’s lost earnings, funeral costs and interest dating to the slaying, which prosecutors said was the result of a squabble over land.

Some of Heemstra’s land remains in his name; some was transferred to his wife, Berta, and other relatives before he was convicted, Beattie said. Beattie said he would push to have Heemstra’s land auctioned to make payments on the civil judgment.

Beattie also threatened to sue Heemstra’s relatives to force the land back into his ownership. Shortly after Heemstra was charged with murder, Beattie said, Ronda Lyon had asked a judge to block any such land transfers.

Beattie has not determined how much land is involved, or how much of the judgment it represents.

“I do think we will recover several million dollars,” he said.

Ronda Lyon, through her lawyer, declined to comment on the case. Berta Heemstra could not be reached Tuesday.

At his 2003 trial, Heemstra said his farm operation covered nearly 3,800 acres – about 2,000 in Warren County and 1,800 in northern Iowa. Ronda Lyon’s lawyers also have said Heemstra transferred bank accounts and insurance policies to relatives.

Tom Lyon was shot once in the head, dragged behind a pickup truck and buried in a cistern about a quarter-mile from where he was killed.

Heemstra, 46, who is serving a life sentence at the Anamosa State Penitentiary, maintains he acted in self-defense. He could appeal Phipps’ decision and fight to protect at least some of the land he transferred to relatives on the ground that they helped him acquire or work the land and are therefore rightful owners.

His lawyers, Joel Yunek and Mason Ouderkirk, did not respond to interview requests.

Heemstra appealed his 2004 conviction to the Iowa Supreme Court. He has maintained that he was denied access to Tom Lyon’s medical records. Heemstra’s lawyers have said the records might show that Lyon had taken medication for anger that could have led to the fatal confrontation.

Heemstra, in taped statements and trial testimony, said he met Lyon, coincidentally, on a Warren County road near their properties on Jan. 13, 2003. He said Lyon blocked the path of his truck and challenged him to get out of his vehicle. Heemstra accepted the challenge and brought with him a loaded .22-caliber rifle because, he claimed, Lyon had a reputation for violent behavior.

Heemstra said he pulled the trigger after Lyon swore, taunted him and lunged.