July 14 2009 – Heemstra Trial

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Des Moines Register. William Petroski. July 14, 2009

July 14 2009 - Heemstra Trial

Indianola, Ia. — Rodney Heemstra testified today he signed a financial statement showing his family had a net worth of about $4.1 million shortly before he killed fellow Milo farmer Tom Lyon in January 2003.

Heemstra, 50, and his wife, Berta, listed about $7 million in assets and about $2.9 million in liabilities. But under questioning in Warren County District Court, he downplayed the importance of the document he submitted to John Deere Credit, saying “it was kind of off the cuff.”

But when Heemstra was asked if he expected John Deere Credit to rely upon the statement while he was seeking financing to purchase a combine, he replied, “Yes.”

Heemstra took the witness stand today 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 of his assets. They claim the Heemstras have used a series of sham transactions to transfer farmland and other financial assets into trusts and other business entities to avoid paying a $5.68 million wrongful death judgment to Lyon’s family.

Heemstra’s lawyers have told Judge Paul Huscher the allegations against their client aren’t true. They have said Heemstra was financially overextended and burdened with debt at the time of the Jan. 13, 2003 slaying. The Heemstras contend they have liquidated their farm operations and don’t have the money to pay Lyon’s family.

Heemstra killed the unarmed Lyon with a single rifle shot to the head after the two men quarreled over farmland and cattle-watering equipment. Heemstra was freed from prison in October after spending four years for voluntary manslaughter.

Heemstra testified today in a Warren County courtroom that was packed with about 50 observers in a trial that has attracted widespread attention. Both he and Ronda Lyon, Tom Lyon’s widow, have attended each day of the trial, which is expected to last at least 10 days.

Heemstra said today that 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 Donald Beattie, a lawyer for the Lyon family.

Heemstra replied, “It was sizable.”

Beattie asked, “You were trying to grow it?”

Heemstra said, “Yes.”

Beattie displayed a farmland value survey conducted by Iowa State University 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.”

Most of the morning was spent examining financial documents with Heemstra, who wore an open-collared shirt and cowboy boots, being asked to answer questions on a line-by-line basis. At two points during the testimony, he left the witness stand to retrieve personal financial documents from his briefcase.

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. He acknowledged under oath that on one of the financial statements he signed he probably didn’t list all the farmland he owned, leaving out “two or three farms.” But he had not closed the sales on some land so it wasn’t listed, he added.

During earlier testimony, Brian Heemstra, 23, the Heemstras' son and a defendant in the lawsuit, said his family was so impoverished after his father went to prison that he recalled his mother being forced to choose between purchasing food or toilet paper. He was in high school at the time.

Brian Heemstra is now a second lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force and he is the trustee of the Appleroon Irrevocable Trust, one of the trusts at issue in the trial. He acknowledged today that he has made a posting to LinkedIn, a business-oriented social networking Web site, which says that one of his goals is “build a legacy that will give my family the financial security that they deserve.”