Nov. 2008 – Hansen: Grisly claims worsen bad day for Heemstra

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Des Moines Register. Marc Hansen. November 7, 2008.

Hansen: Grisly claims worsen bad day for Heemstra

Tom McNamara was the captain of the Warren County Sheriff's Department on Jan. 14, 2003. He's retired now, but he still remembers that bitter cold, gruesome night.

The people on the search and rescue team were chilled to the bone. They had been walking the cornfields for three hours and were ready to go home.

"It was horrible out," McNamara said on the witness stand Thursday, during the wrongful-death trial of Milo farmer Rodney Heemstra. "They weren't real happy with me."

Which was too bad for them, because everything felt wrong. The search team was missing something. He could feel it. All that blood in the cornfield and no body?

The trail of blood was strange, too. There it was. Then it was gone. There it was again. Then gone. Now he knows why. At the time, though, it was a mystery.

So McNamara told the group to press on, side by side, one row at a time like pheasant hunters. Snow was in the forecast. A white blanket on the ground would make the search that much more difficult. And the clock was ticking.

Then came the breakthrough. A member of the search crew stepped on something soft and spongy. The rest of the field had the feel of a frozen parking lot. The color was different.

It was a bale of hay. Under it was another bale of hay, and another. They had stumbled across an abandoned cistern that was 5 feet deep.

McNamara jumped in, dug around and found a pair of boots sticking out of the hay. Tom Lyon, whose family now is suing Heemstra in Polk County District Court for damages, was wearing those boots. He was dead and now it was time to find out who did it.

McNamara declared the area a crime scene and ordered a search warrant. It wasn't time to go home now.

When McNamara left the witness stand Thursday, he stood in the hallway and talked about the discovery, in detail most of us have never heard.

You bet he kept the search team out there in the below-zero wind chill.

If a woman on the K-9 crew had not found a bloody cornstalk, they might still be looking.

If someone had not stepped on that bale of hay, maybe Heemstra doesn't get caught and Lyon's disappearance remains a mystery.

McNamara's explanation of the off-and-on blood trail was gruesome. Heemstra, he said, had chained Lyon's feet to the back of his pickup truck.

"He drug the body all over the cornfield," McNamara said. "Lyon's face and head were smashing on the ground." The body kept flopping over, which explained the inconsistent blood trail.

No, Thursday wasn't such a great day in court for Heemstra, who has had hundreds of bad days over the past few years.

But even when he was behind bars serving four years and four months for voluntary manslaughter, none of those days was anywhere near as bad as Lyon's worst, which is important to remember.

Thursday was the day the people stepped to the witness stand and called Lyon a sweetheart and Heemstra a walking temper tantrum.

Lyon was a good farmer, a conservationist who took care of his fences and waterways, they testified. The animals always had water. The soil samples were always up to snuff.

Lyon was even patient with his pigs, one witness said, which isn't easy, if you know pigs.

Another witness said Lyon was a nice guy who would tease you in a good way. And if you needed anything, he was the one you called.

He was generous. If he hired you to help work his land he would ask you in for one of wife Ronda's great home-cooked meals. Then he'd give you an open invitation. And you were a fool if you didn't take him up on it.

A young man described Tom and Ronda as a loving couple. Mates for life.

One witness said he never even heard Tom Lyon talk bad about Heemstra, the man who shot him dead almost six years ago.

In fact, one witness said Lyon used to talk about what an industrious, conscientious worker Heemstra was. If he was upset when Heemstra bought some farmland "out from under him," as they say, he couldn't have been that upset.

As for Heemstra, oh, boy. You heard what he said Wednesday about never having fired a gun at another human being? Not true, one witness said.

Twenty-seven years ago, Heemstra fired shots at an unmarked police car, according to the witness.

This was turnabout day, and Heemstra's lawyers filled the courtroom with objections, most of which were overruled.

A woman from the Warren Water District talked about the day Heemstra stormed into her office and backed her into a corner.

Peggy Crabbs' hands were clasped tightly as she spoke. Her voice quivered. Her eyes were moist. When a Lyon family lawyer asked if she was still scared of the defendant, she could barely squeeze out a yes.

The water district wanted to run a water line through Heemstra's property. He objected vehemently and paid her a surprise visit at work, bursting into her office.

"He was moving toward me as fast as he could," Crabbs said, "and I was backing up as fast as I could. He started out somewhat calm. Then he got louder and more adamant. Red-faced, stiff, angry. He got right into my face and screamed, 'Stop this or you'll be sorry.' ''

After standing over her a few seconds longer, she recalled, Heemstra stomped off, slamming the door on his way out. He jumped into his truck and peeled away.

When he was gone, Crabbs dropped to the floor. Later, she called the police.

While Crabbs gave her testimony, the judge sat silently and watched.

No telling what District Judge Michael Huppert was thinking, but it couldn't have been good for the defendant.