Nov. 2008 – Hansen: Lyon family’s emotional state emerges at trial

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Des Moines Register. Marc Hansen. November 8, 2008.

Hansen: Lyon family's emotional state emerges at trail

The doctor and the therapist both took the stand and said Ronda Lyon went downhill emotionally before her husband died.

The lawyers on the other side tried to show that neither she nor Tom Lyon was doing so great before Jan. 13, 2003, when Rodney Heemstra yanked the rifle out of his pickup truck and pulled the trigger.

What makes this an important distinction is the money. If the Lyons were battling demons before Heemstra killed Tom almost six years ago, why should Heemstra take all the blame for Ronda's fragile state now?

It's callous, but this is a wrongful-death trial. All kinds of information that usually stays private becomes painfully public.

The experts gave the impression that Tom Lyon's unexpected death dragged Ronda Lyon down even further, and how can you dispute that?

They were having problems. They were both being treated for depression. Tom was prone to "explosive outbursts." If he didn't get those anger issues resolved, she was leaving him.

They were both working, often on different schedules, and drifting apart.

But Tom went to therapy and they tried to work it out, and everybody seemed better. That's the way the story went Friday, the third day of the civil trial. When the other side rolls out its witnesses next week, we probably won't recognize this couple.

But Friday was for painting sympathetic portraits. The lawyers pulled out photos that showed a happy, healthy family at play.

There was Tom intentionally dressed in a clueless dad outfit designed to embarrass his daughter. The tennis shoes, black socks, John Deere suspenders and the shorts covered with Graceland University emblems produced the desired effect. Cheri, her mother recalled, was "embarrassed to death."

Some of the images were sad. There they were at Heathrow Airport. Son Bart had been transferred from Chicago to London and he had invited them out for New Year's Eve. In the picture they were saying goodbye, which put tears back in Ronda's eyes.

Ronda and Tom had lived in the same home since they were married. They had nothing then, but they helped renovate Ronda's father's farmhouse and moved in. They lived paycheck to paycheck. Tom had another job, but what he really wanted to do was become a full-time farmer.

He borrowed some farm equipment and rented some farmland. Then he started buying his own equipment and his own land and the farmhouse.

Bart was born in 1972 and Cheri came along three years later. Their parents bought only what they could afford and survived the farm crisis of the '80s.

Bart and Cheri went away to college, something Tom had never done. He was proud, and Ronda's eyes welled at the thought.

There was the picture of Bart the wrestler, and Tom the self-proclaimed wrestling expert, horsing around in the house, probably teaching the kid a move, which made Ronda laugh.

"They would have done a whole lot more," she said, "if I'd let them. I had to get between the two because they didn't want to mind me."

For a few moments, the questions didn't involve anxiety and depression and marriage counselors and rifles and blood in the cornfield.

They met at a high school softball game at Pleasantville, Tom's school. He was a year older. She was playing for Warren Central High School.

After the game, he offered to take her home. She got permission from the coach and they drove away on the road to forever. Soon they were married. Neither was 21.

She figured they would grow old together. Ronda said she had never been with another man and, as far as she knew, he had never been with another woman.

They had always lived in the farmhouse. But then Heemstra put a bullet in Tom's head, and the finances went from bad to worse. Eventually, she was forced to sell the house.

Ronda Lyon tried to describe the sale of the home but didn't get far. She let out a cry and reached for another tissue.

Heemstra, head down, scribbled on a piece of paper. It was getting late in the day. Michael Huppert, the judge, called the lawyers to the bench.

When the huddle broke a few seconds later, Huppert looked up and said the testimony would resume Monday morning. At that moment, however, it wasn't clear how.