July 16 2009 – Heemstra Trial

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Des Moines Register. William Petroski. July 16, 2009

July 16 2009 - Heemstra Trial

Indianola, Ia. — Rodney Heemstra testified Wednesday that his large farm operation collapsed after he was arrested for killing fellow Milo farmer Tom Lyon, forcing Heemstra to liquidate his assets and sending his financial worth plunging.

Heemstra and wife, Berta, had owned about 1,600 acres of farmland in Warren County and in northern Iowa. They also rented about 1,500 acres of farm ground. The couple listed a net worth of about $4.1 million on a financial statement filed days before the January 2003 slaying.

Heemstra testified on the eighth day of a civil trial in Warren County District Court that his widely publicized arrest for killing Lyon immediately made it impossible for him to operate his farms.

The trial focuses on allegations by Lyon's family that Heemstra and his relatives have concealed millions of dollars of his assets in an effort to avoid payment of a $5.68 million wrongful-death judgment to Lyon's estate.

Although Heemstra was released from jail on bond before he went to trial on criminal charges, he said the barriers he faced in the farming community were insurmountable.

Heemstra on Wednesday testified:
  • After lenders learned of his arrest, they informed him they wouldn't provide him loans to plant crops in spring 2003.
  • His hired man quit.
  • He was forced to sell his farm machinery.
  • His suppliers told him they didn't want to do business with him.

"Frankly, psychologically, I wouldn't have been able to do it even if those other factors hadn't been present," Heemstra told presiding Judge Paul Huscher.

Closing arguments could come as soon as today. Huscher, who is hearing the case without a jury, is expected to rule on the lawsuit within a few months.

Heemstra spent four years in prison for a voluntary-manslaughter conviction before he was freed in October. He killed Lyon with a rifle shot to the forehead after the two farmers quarreled over farmland and cattle-watering equipment.

Heemstra has said he doesn't have the money to pay the $5.68 million in damages to Lyon's family. His attorneys portray him as a farmer who was burdened with debt and financially overextended at the time of the slaying. They deny there has been any effort to hide assets.

Letters were introduced Wednesday by Heemstra's attorneys as evidence showing that Farm Credit Services rejected loan applications filed in November 2002 by the couple.

"They were letting us know that they were not going to loan us money," Heemstra said. "They said that we had excessive obligations versus assets and insufficient working capital."

The plaintiffs have alleged Heemstra, with cooperation of relatives, conducted scam transactions involving farmland and other assets through family trusts and other business entities in a conspiracy to defraud Lyon's estate.

Defense attorney Joel Baxter questioned Heemstra about his finances before and after the killing.

Heemstra said that in the process of liquidating his farm operation, he sold farm machinery, farmland and other assets, and used the proceeds to make payments against his debts.

Heemstra also said he had a bad experience in the commodities trading market, losing about $600,000 in his account after the slaying. He was unable to make margin calls, and the account was liquidated about Jan. 20, 2003, days after his arrest, he testified.

Under later questioning by the Lyons' attorney, Donald Beattie, Heemstra said he was unable to produce records from his commodity trading account.

"All my records were stolen in '07," Heemstra said. He said the theft occurred when someone broke into his house. "An individual broke in. I heard it was a private investigator."

Ronda Lyon, Tom Lyon's widow, was the final witness called Wednesday. This is the fifth trial regarding her husband's death — two criminal cases and three civil cases. The lengthy litigation in the past six years has been overwhelming to her physically and emotionally, she said.

Sometimes, it is almost impossible to get out of bed, she said. "Every day, I think about what has happened. How it has happened. What is going to happen next? Why can't this just be settled? Why can't this just be over with and done?

"I can't feel a normalcy because this is all I have dealt with for six years."