Dec. 2008 – Hansen: Pastor tracks tragedy until $6 million end

Iowa’s Only GR8 Professional Law Firm:


  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Des Moines Register. Marc Hansen. December 23, 2008

Hansen: Pastor tracks tragedy until $6 million end

Except for the time he spent fighting the flu, the Rev. Keith Smith all but camped out in the courtroom.

He was there every step, supporting Ronda Lyon and her family, listening to testimony, writing it all down in his notebook.

Smith, 56, is the pastor of the Motor Friends Church near Milo. You might have seen him on TV when Tom Lyon disappeared almost six years ago, before and after anyone knew Rodney Heemstra had killed Lyon with a rifle shot to the head.

Smith thinks about Lyon's brutal death every day. He sees the cross in a driveway near the church. When he travels the road near where Lyon's body was dumped, the internal dialogue bubbles to the surface. "It took me a long time to go down that road again," Smith says. "You're driving along and you're thinking about how Tom was being drug behind that pickup truck and it turns your stomach. Heemstra has never taken responsibility, never said he was sorry."

As they searched for Lyon, Smith's little Quaker church became the unofficial command post. Volunteers gathered there to take direction, exchange information and come in from the cold. Motor Friends was the place you went for coffee and sandwiches at 12 noon or 12 midnight.

Smith became the unofficial host and family spokesman. He didn't ask for the job, but he cared about the Lyon family, who lived a quarter-mile to the north. He'd known Tom and Ronda Lyon forever.

That's why he checked into a motel in Sioux City, where Heemstra was convicted of first-degree murder and sent away, supposedly, for life.

That's why he showed up in Red Oak after the Iowa Supreme Court gave Heemstra a new trial, the one that knocked the sentence down to voluntary manslaughter.

I met Smith during the second wrongful-death civil trial last month. The first verdict had been thrown out after the Supreme Court ruling, and here Ronda Lyon was in Des Moines, reliving the nightmare again, watching Heemstra walk around free after four years in prison.

Smith was there for both civil trials, logging as much court time as the lawyers and keeping his journal. He calls it "Unexpected Journey" and has 12 chapters written, with new material for about 12 more.

The journal is an inside look at how a tiny farm community in southern Iowa rallied behind a grieving family, responding as best it could to a "horrific, life-altering experience."

Smith was the person who broke the news to Ronda Lyon's son in Chicago. Bart Lyon was coming in from London, where he worked. His mother wasn't sure what to say and handed the phone to the pastor.

"I continued to talk to him and tell him how sorry I was," Smith wrote, "yet I knew he was sitting there at O'Hare Airport with no one that he knew or could talk to, and I had just told him that his father was dead. How was he going to cope, how was he going to react, would he be OK until he got home?"

Smith's journal began as therapy and kept expanding with every trial. Last week, the final chapter at least moved into sight when District Judge Michael Huppert decided Ronda Lyon deserves around $6 million in damages.

When Huppert's ruling came down, I met with Smith in Indianola. He was happy with the decision, especially with the way the judge dispelled all doubts about the strength of the Lyons' 32-year marriage.

The defense lawyers wanted everyone to believe the marriage was falling apart, but the judge didn't buy it. In his ruling, Huppert described Ronda and Tom Lyon as "marital partners in every sense of the word. As Ronda testified, they never slept apart until Lyon's untimely death. The issues that resulted in each of them receiving professional help are not atypical developments in a long-term marriage. ... The strength of their union is best represented by their obvious need to be with each other, and their desire to confront and resolve the issues that developed in their marriage."

The $6 million sounds good, too. Not as good as $11 million sounded the first time, but Smith remains wary. "The question is," he says, "will she ever see any of it?"

Don Beattie, a Lyon family lawyer, says he placed liens on every piece of property he could find, which means the legal battle could rage for years.

Even if Ronda Lyon gets every cent she has coming, she'll be living that final chapter for the rest of her life.