July 2009 – Heemstra says he’s yet to offer sympathy to Lyon’s widow

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Des Moines Register. William Petroski. July 15, 2009.

Heemstra says he's yet to offer sympathy to Lyon's widow

Indianola, Ia. - Rodney Heemstra acknowledged Tuesday that he has never expressed sympathy to the widow of the Milo farmer he shot to death six years ago.

Heemstra testified, however, that he had taken the first step in that process by not appealing a judge's order last fall that requires him to pay $5.68 million in wrongful-death damages to Ronda Lyon, who was married to Tom Lyon.

"But until the litigation is over, I don't think it is appropriate" to express sympathy to the slain farmer's family, Heemstra, 50, testified in Warren County District Court.

Heemstra, who now lives with his wife, Berta, in Panora in Guthrie County, spent nearly four hours on the witness stand Tuesday. He was a key witness during the seventh day of a civil trial in which Lyon's estate is accusing Heemstra and his relatives of fraudulently concealing millions of dollars' worth of assets.

The Lyon family's lawyers contend the Heemstras have used a series of sham transactions to transfer farmland and other assets into trusts and other business entities to avoid paying the judgment.

Heemstra acknowledged Tuesday that he signed a financial statement showing his family had a net worth of about $4.1 million shortly before he killed Lyon on Jan. 13, 2003.

He and Berta Heemstra listed about $7 million in assets and about $2.9 million in liabilities. But under questioning by plaintiffs' lawyer Donald Beattie, Heemstra downplayed the importance of the document he submitted to John Deere Credit, saying "it was kind of off the cuff."

Heemstra's lawyers have told District Judge Paul Huscher that the allegations against their client aren't true. They have said Heemstra was financially overextended and burdened with debt at the time of the slaying.

The Heemstras contend they have liquidated their farm operations and don't have the money to pay Lyon's family. Heemstra testified Tuesday that he talked with family members about the multimillion-dollar judgment against him over the Christmas holidays last December.

"I think I might have said it was impossible that it could ever be paid because I was never worth that," Heemstra said.

Under later questioning, Heemstra said he didn't deny telling a cellmate at the Anamosa State Penitentiary that Ronda Lyon would "never get a nickel" from him for killing her husband. But he said the statement was taken out of context because he had been appealing his first-degree murder conviction at the time. He said he was confident that if he won his appeal, it would also overturn any civil judgment against him. The murder conviction was thrown out on appeal, which vacated a pending civil judgment against Heemstra. He was subsequently convicted of voluntary manslaughter and served four years in prison for firing a single .22-caliber rifle shot to the head of the unarmed Lyon. The two men had repeatedly quarreled over farmland and cattle-watering equipment. A new civil judgment of $5.68 million has since been ordered against him.

Heemstra, who was dressed casually in cowboy boots and an open-collar shirt, testified in a Warren County courtroom that was packed with about 50 observers. Both he and Ronda Lyon, Tom Lyon's widow, have attended each day of the trial, which began July 6 and has attracted widespread attention. At the outset, the trial was expected to last 10 days. Heemstra said he and his wife owned about 1,600 acres of farmland in Warren County and in northern Iowa at the time of the slaying. They also rented in excess of 2,000 acres of farm ground.

"That's a pretty big operation?" remarked Beattie, the lawyer for Lyon's estate.

Heemstra replied, "It was sizable."

Beattie asked, "You were trying to grow it?"

Heemstra said, "Yes."

Beattie displayed a farmland value survey that showed the cost of Iowa farmland has risen dramatically.

"So we are talking about some valuable farmland, aren't we?" Beattie asked.

Heemstra replied, "I would say yes."

One of the documents showed Heemstra and his wife had about $75,000 in cash just before he killed Lyon, along with a crop inventory worth $915,000. Sandra Duncan, a licensed independent social worker who has counseled Ronda Lyon, testified the farm widow still suffers from anxiety, physical and mental exhaustion, and a feeling of being overwhelmed.

This is the fifth trial - two criminal cases and three civil cases - over the past six years that Ronda Lyon has been through, Duncan said.

"She has mentioned to me she just wants this to be over," Duncan said. "From a mental health standpoint, it is very difficult to go through the grieving process ... with all of the legal situations that she has had to incur over the past six years. She has never had closure."