Nov. 2008 – Heemstra weeps, says he pulled gun in self-defense

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Des Moines Register. William Petroski. November 6, 2008.

Heemstra weeps, says he pulled gun in self-defense

An emotional Rodney Heemstra testified today he pulled a gun in self-defense during a confrontation with slain Milo farmer Tom Lyon. He said he desperately wanted to escape the scene without firing.

Heemstra, 49, killed the unarmed Lyon with a single rifle shot to the head on Jan. 13, 2003. He was ultimately convicted of voluntary manslaughter. Lyon’s family is suing him for damages in a wrongful death lawsuit in Polk County District Court.

Heemstra, fighting back tears and wiping his eyes, today recounted a series of confrontations with Lyon over cattle-watering equipment and land Heemstra had purchased in rural Warren County. Lyon had rented the land, and Heemstra was overseeing the farm until he could take possession in March 2003.

At one point during today’s testimony, Heemstra became so emotional that Judge Michael Huppert called a recess. Lyon’s widow, Ronda, sat in front of the courtroom with her lawyers, although she looked away from the witness stand during much of the proceedings.

About 20 friends and relatives of the Lyon family are attending the second day of the trial, along with several of Heemstra’s relatives. The case is expected to continue into next week.

Heemstra told the court how, on the morning of the deadly incident, he arose early and headed to the farm about 6:30, while it was still dark. He wanted to make sure the furnace was operating in the vacant house and that water was available for the cattle.

Heemstra said he had begun checking farm earlier in the morning than usual in an effort to avoid Lyon, who had been harassing him.

“I just didn’t want any more confrontations with him,” Heemstra said.

After he left the farm in his pickup truck, Heemstra said he headed down a rural road and saw Lyon ahead of him. He testified that Lyon blocked his path, and that both men got out of their pickup trucks.

Inside Heemstra’s truck was a rarely used .22-caliber rifle he had acquired as a teenager, and which he occasionally used to shoot a raccoon or opossum. The weapon had bullets that were at least 15 years old, he said, and he didn’t have a hunting license.

Lyon was in a rage, his face beet red, and his eyes were bulging, Heemstra said. He claimed Lyon cursed at him and told him to shut up.

“He said he was going to make sure I didn’t get that farm. That’s when he shoved me,” Heemstra said. He also said Lyon vowed he “was going to beat the hell out of me. I just took that that he was going to do me in.”

After Heemstra grabbed the rifle, it appeared that Lyon was backing off and he could escape, he testified.

“I was scared. I was hoping that the gun would neutralize the situation so I could get out of there.” Heemstra said. He explained he planned to put his pickup truck in reverse and depart the scene.

But then Lyon came back at him, still in a tirade, Heemstra said, openly crying and wiping tears from his face while on the witness stand.

“He said, You’re a big man. Look at you. You’ll never pull that trigger.” Heemstra said.

Lyon lunged at him, and Heemstra said he fired a shot.

Heemstra said Lyon immediately went down and he stood there in shock, disbelieving what had happened.

Heemstra then used his pickup truck to drag Lyon’s body more than a mile, where he dumped it head first into a cistern and hid it with hay bales. He later confessed to authorities.

Under cross-examination, Donald Beattie, a lawyer for the Lyon family, questioned Heemstra’s testimony today, saying it included statements justifying the shooting he had never made in previous confessions. Heemstra said he was simply providing a more full explanation than he had in the past.

“We know one thing for sure. You killed the only other witness who could testify. Isn’t that the truth?” Beattie asked Heemstra, who nodded affirmatively.

Beattie also grilled Heemstra about the extent of his financial assets, questioning whether he was trying to hide millions of dollars in farmland in Warren County and in northern Iowa from financial disclosure statements. Heemstra said he had truthfully disclosed his finances.

Prior to the slaying, in December 2002, Heemstra and his wife are believed to have had a net worth approaching $4 million, which would have increased in value since then because of skyrocketing farmland values.

Heemstra said today his wife, earning about $40,000 annually as a registered nurse, developed the vast majority of the couple’s financial worth. He said he didn’t make much money during his early years in farming and she invested her cash in farmland.