The final chapter in one of the most tragic disputes ever between a pair of Iowa farm families is unfolding at the Warren County Courthouse, but it won't include an apology from former Milo farmer Rodney Heemstra, who killed his neighbor Tom Lyon almost a decade ago.
Court approval was given today to the final distribution of proceeds from the sale of about 1,200 acres of Heemstra's farmland in Hancock, Wright and Warren counties. The exact terms of a settlement between Heemstra and the Lyon estate still haven't been disclosed, but it is believed that Lyon's family could receive a figure as high as $6 million to $7 million. Iowa's courts have previously issued judgments against Heemstra and his wife, Berta, for about $7 million, including interest.
Donald Beattie, one of the lawyers representing the Lyon family, said the conclusion to litigation is welcomed by Ronda Lyon, Tom Lyon's widow, and other members of her family.
"I feel kind of numb to be honest with you. I don't know what to say. It is like the Nightmare on Elm Street that has gone on for 10 years and we are drawing some closure now, especially for Ronda," Beattie said.
However, the settlement does not include an apology from Heemstra to the Lyon family, Beattie said. Throughout nearly 10 years of legal proceedings, Heemstra has never apologized for the death of Tom Lyon, although he acknowledged killing his neighbor after a series of arguments over farmland and cattle-watering equipment.
"You know, to be honest with you, I am not concerned about a written apology in a settlement agreement, whether it is in there or not," Beattie said. "What benefit do you get from that? The only apology that I would ever want to see if I was a victim like Ronda was would be a guy coming up on his hands and knees and begging for forgiveness. To me that would be the only apology that I would ever consider an apology."
Heemstra appeared at today's court proceedings, representing himself without an attorney. He declined a request for an interview from the Des Moines Register.
Two separate court hearings were held today in District Court here before Judges Paul Huscher and Martha Mertz. The judges heard comments from all the parties involved in the case and approved the report of a court-appointed receiver, retired Judge Thomas Brown of Osceola, who had overseen the sale of Heemstra's farmland and who will now distribute the proceeds to the Lyon estate and satisfy any remaining debts.
Both judges must still issue written orders regarding the settlement that are expected to be filed in the coming weeks. Beattie declined to permit Ronda Lyon to talk with reporters today, saying he wants the matter to be final before he permits his client to publicly discuss the case.
Ron Danks, a Pleasantville lawyer who also represents the Lyon family, said he was pleased for Ronda Lyon and her children that the litigation is finally nearing an end. He said they have shown "amazing strength and I have tremendous admiration for them."
Heemstra, now 53, 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.
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, District Judge Paul 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 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.
But until settlement talks began earlier this year, Heemstra had continued to fight every effort by the Lyon family to collect on the judgments. He and his attorneys filed motion after motion of resistance. However in March, acting without formal legal counsel, Heemstra negotiated an agreement with the Lyon family's lawyers, and he shook hands with them in a courtroom in April after Huscher approved the settlement.
Today's proceedings were intended to wrap up the final details of the civil suits. Heemstra can now walk away without any further threat of legal claims against him from the Lyon estate, while the Lyon family will have more opportunity to find closure in the death of a husband and a father.
TIMELINE IN HEEMSTRA-LYON COURT CASES2003