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Exclusive: Heemstra, Lyon families near multi-million dollar settlement nine years after Milo farm slaying
Indianola, Ia. – Nine years after Milo farmer Rodney Heemstra gunned down his neighbor Tom Lyon in a heated dispute over farmland and cattle-watering equipment, a settlement appears near to end the bitter civil lawsuits that have followed.
District Judge Paul Huscher today confirmed that lawyers representing all parties in the litigation are engaged in serious talks aimed at resolving lawsuits filed by Lyon’s estate, which has been awarded judgments against Heemstra of about $7 million, including interest.
“They are working on a settlement, but they have some tax issues they need to resolve,” Huscher said.
A hearing had been scheduled in Warren County District Court this afternoon and lawyers indicated they expected to announce details of a settlement. But Huscher said questions arose about unsettled state and federal tax issues involving the transfer of Heemstra’s land that precluded an agreement from being finalized. He set another court hearing for April 26.
Ronda Lyon, Tom Lyon’s widow, was in courtroom today with her daughter, Cheri Lyon, hoping for a settlement. Heemstra and his wife, Berta, sat behind them.
Any settlement is expected to include the payment of millions of dollars to Lyon’s estate, as well as payments for creditors that include Heemstra’s mortgage holders, state and federal tax agencies, and others with financial stakes. Donald Beattie, one of the Lyon’s family lawyers, declined to comment as he left the Warren County Courthouse today, and none of the other lawyers publicly spoke about the settlement talks.
James Brown of Osceola, a retired Iowa judge who is a court-appointed receiver in the case, was asked as he left the courtroom if a settlement was near. He responded by crossing his fingers.
Settlement talks among lawyers representing all the parties began this morning as Huscher was scheduled to consider the disbursement of about $7.5 million from the sale of 745 acres of farm land that had been owned by Heemstra in Hancock and Wright counties. Another court hearing had been set for Friday involving the sale of 465 acres off farm land near Milo in Warren County for about $3.5 million. That hearing has been postponed.
Heemstra, now 52, killed the unarmed Lyon with a single shot to the head on Jan. 13, 2003, in rural Warren County using a .22-caliber rifle he had kept in his pickup truck. The incident occurred after the two men had engaged in a running argument over Heemstra’s purchase of a rural Milo farm that Lyon had used for feeding his cattle. Both men were well-known and established farmers and the slaying shocked people in the tightly knit Milo area. More than 1,000 people attended Lyon’s funeral at First Assembly of God in Indianola.
Heemstra confessed to authorities, telling investigators the friction between the two men had escalated to the point that Lyon had blocked the roadway in front of him that ill-fated morning as he drove behind him. Heemstra claimed Lyon got out of his vehicle to confront him and his first reaction was to take the rifle out of his truck. He contended Lyon taunted him, daring him to use the rifle. Heemstra later claimed Lyon had lunged at him and his actions were in self-defense.
After the slaying, Heemstra chained Lyon’s body to his pickup truck and dragged it to a field, where he hid it in a 12-foot deep cistern under hay bales. Hundreds of people joined search parties before the body was found.
Heemstra was originally convicted of first-degree murder and was given a life sentence, but his conviction was overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court. He was tried again and convicted of voluntary manslaughter and was freed in 2008 after serving four years in Iowa’s prison system.
A series of civil lawsuits followed the slaying as Lyon’s widow sought damages for his wrongful death, and Heemstra fiercely resisted the litigation. In December 2008, after an earlier judgment was overturned, Polk County District Judge Michael Huppert ordered Heemstra to pay $5.68 million in damages. He ruled Heemstra had acted to conceal his responsibility for the crime almost from the moment of the slaying.
Then in September 2009, Judge Huscher agreed with Lyon’s estate that Heemstra and his relatives had used a series of sham transactions in an effort to transfer farmland and other assets to avoid payment of the $5.68 million judgment. The judge called Heemstra “conniving” and “motivated by greed.” He ordered an additional $750,000 in punitive damages against Heemstra and his wife, Berta, plus $250,000 in legal fees.
However, Heemstra continued to fight the litigation. He filed motion after motion to challenge the court’s efforts to sell about 1,500 acres of land Heemstra owned in Warren, Wright, Humboldt, Guthrie and Hancock counties.
In a bluntly worded response to Heemstra’s motions filed on March 5 in Warren County District Court, Carly Smith, a lawyer for Lyon’s estate, wrote, “The goal of the Heemstra family is to keep all the property within the family’s control and make sure that the plaintiffs never receive a nickel of Rodney or Berta Heemstra’s money.”
But Heemstra apparently tired of the legal dispute and reportedly offered a settlement today to end the civil litigation. Don Beattie, a lawyer for the Lyon estate, was initially wary of the offer, but agreed to listen and they are apparently close to striking an agreeement, although state and federal tax issues must still be resolved.
TIMELINE IN HEEMSTRA-LYON COURT CASES
- Tom Lyon, 52, dies in January from a single gunshot wound to the head as he tends livestock near his Milo home. Authorities arrest neighbor Rodney Heemstra, who they say shot Lyon with a rifle after an argument about property.
- Lyon’s wife, Ronda, sues Heemstra for more than $2 million and asks a judge for first claim to property that he sold or transferred after the slaying.
- At his October murder trial, Heemstra testifies that an enraged Lyon lunged at him during a quarrel, which prompted the shooting.
- Heemstra is convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
- Heemstra appeals. He claims he was denied a fair trial because a judge blocked access to Lyon’s medical records.
- The Iowa Supreme Court rules that Heemstra deserves a new trial. The decision overturns a portion of Iowa’s “felony-murder rule,” which since 1982 had allowed murder convictions when a person was slain while a forcible felony was being committed.
- Heemstra’s second trial takes place in Montgomery County. He is convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
- Heemstra is released from Iowa’s prison system after four years behind bars.
- A second civil trial is held in Polk County District Court because the initial verdict was declared invalid by the Iowa Supreme Court. The court awards Lyon’s estate $5.68 million.
- A judge rules against Heemstra in a civil fraud case brought by Lyon’s estate and awards $750,000 in punitive damages, plus $250,000 in legal fees. Lyon’s family alleged during a Warren County District Court trial that Heemstra and his wife, Berta, had conspired to defraud Lyon’s estate of a $5.68 million wrongful death judgment. The judge also appointed a receiver to sell farmland and other real estate owned by Heemstra and his wife in five Iowa counties.
- Lawyers representing Lyon’s estate and Heemstra meet in Warren County District Court and agree on several key points aimed at settling the civil litigation and paying off the judgments against Heemstra. But lawyers also say it could be several years before everything is resolved. They agree that any proceeds from sales of Heemstra’s land holdings must be used to pay off certain mortgages and to give priority to state and federal tax liens.
- Heemstra’s lawyers make arguments to set aside sheriff’s deeds on his land holdings. Heemstra files other motions in court, raising objections to the proceedings.
- Court is scheduled to oversee the sales of about 1,200 acres of Heemstra’s farm holdings in Warren, Wright and Hancock counties for more than $11 million in an effort to satisfy judgments against Heemstra. Talks are held among all the parties involved in an effort to reach a settlement, and agreement appears near, although issues over state and federal taxes prevent a settlement from being finalized. Another court hearing is set for April 26.
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