July 13 2009 – Heemstra Trial

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Des Moines Register. William Petroski. July 13, 2009.

July 13 2009 - Heemstra Trial

Indianola, Ia. – Rodney Heemstra's sister-in-law testified today she believes the former Milo farmer killed neighbor Tom Lyon in self defense and would be justified if he tried to avoid paying a $5.68 million wrongful death judgment to Lyon’s family.

Under later testimony this afternoon, however, Brenda Gavin recanted her statement about avoiding the payment of damages, saying, “I don’t believe that would be right.” She denied doing anything to help Heemstra hide his financial assets. Gavin testified in Warren County District Court in a civil trial that has entered its sixth day. The family of Lyon, who was shot to death by Heemstra in January 2003, has sued Heemstra and his relatives, alleging they have engaged in a series of sham business transactions in a conspiracy to conceal Heemstra’s assets.

Gavin, who works as a pharmacy technician at Indianola’s Wal-Mart store, said she had never been in charge of a trust prior to becoming trustee of the Brass Tack Irrevocable Trust in May 2004. The Brass Tack Trust is one of several trusts and other business entities at issue in the trial, being presided over by Judge Paul Huscher. Gavin responded to a series of questions today from the Lyon family’s lawyer, Donald Beattie. He asked her if she believed the $5.68 million judgment against Heemstra was too high, and she replied, “Yes, I do.” Then he asked her if she believed Heemstra killed Lyon in self-defense. She responded, “Yes, I do.”

He followed up by asking if Heemstra was justified in transferring land to avoid paying the judgment to Ronda Lyon, the slain farmer’s widow.

Gavin replied, “I don’t know that is what he has done.”

Beattie revised the question, saying, “If he transferred land to prevent Ronda from collecting judgment, would he be justified in doing so?” Gavin replied, “Yes.”

During questioning this afternoon, Gavin was asked by defense lawyer Joel Baxter about her earlier testimony about Heemstra being justified if he tried to hide assets. She replied, “I stated that wrong. I don’t believe that would be right.”

She said she isn’t doing anything to help Heemstra hide financial assets.

Heemstra confessed to killing the unarmed Lyon with a single rifle shot to the head after the two men quarreled over farmland and cattle-watering equipment. The he dragged the body with a pickup truck more than a mile before dumping it in a cistern and covering it with hay bales. He was freed from prison in October after spending more than four years in prison for voluntary manslaughter.

A judge has since ordered him to pay damages to Lyon’s family, which has been unable to collect because Heemstra contends he has no money. Prior to the slaying, Rodney Heemstra and his wife, Bertra, had filed a financial statement showing net assets between $3.7 million and $4.2 million. But Heemstra's lawyers contend the family farm operation was overextended financially and burdened with debt.

Gavin, who is the sister of Berta Heemstra, testified she became head of the Brass Tack Trust in May 2004 to help the Heemstras’ sons, Brian and Scott, while their parents were having serious financial troubles.The boys were around high-school age at the time, and they needed some spending money, she said.

“Berta’s credit was pretty much shot. She couldn’t even get a cell phone for her boys. I am pretty sure that is the truth,” Gavin said.

The Brass Tack Trust, which has acquired farmland and other assets, has probably provided $2,000 to $3,000 over the past five years for car payments and phone bills for the boys, who are now college age, Gavin said.

But she also acknowledged under oath that Brass Tack Trust has mortgaged three lots for $75,000 to pay Rodney Heemstra’s legal bills. She said the payments for legal bills were permissible because she had permission from both of Heemstra’s sons to do so.