July 6 2009 – Heemstra Trial

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Des Moines Register. William Petroski. July 6, 2009.

July 6 2009 - Heemstra Trial

Indianola, Ia. - Former Milo farmer Rodney Heemstra and his relatives have fraudulently conspired to deprive the Lyon family from receiving a $5.68 million wrongful-death judgment, the Lyon family lawyer alleged Monday in Warren County District Court.

"Millions are still missing, and these co-conspirators are responsible for it," the lawyer, Donald Beattie, told District Judge Paul Huscher during opening arguments in the civil trial growing out of the lawsuit the family of Tom Lyon filed against their former neighbor.

Heemstra's attorney, Joel Baxter, strongly disputed the allegations in his initial remarks, saying "they are quite simply wrong."

This week's civil fraud trial involving the Heemstra and Lyon families is the latest chapter in lengthy court proceedings stemming from the Jan. 13, 2003, death of Tom Lyon in rural Warren County.

Heemstra killed the unarmed Lyon, 52, with a single rifle shot to the head after a series of arguments between the two men over farmland and cattle-watering equipment.

Heemstra spent about four years in prison for voluntary manslaughter. He was freed last October.

Following a five-day civil trial last fall, District Judge Michael Huppert ordered Heemstra to pay Lyon's family the wrongful-death judgment.

The family is still trying to collect that judgment. The trial that began Monday could answer the question of how much money the Heemstra family had and whether any efforts were made to hide their assets.

About 30 people attended Monday's court session, including Heemstra, who sat in the back of the courtroom with relatives. Ronda Lyon, Tom Lyon's widow, sat with her lawyers at the front near the judge.

The nonjury trial is expected to last 10 days. Huscher is expected to take the case under consideration and rule later.

Beattie said the conspiracy began two days after the killing and has continued since then with a series of real estate transfers and sham financial dealings involving Heemstra, his wife, Berta, and a host of relatives. The business deals involve farm holdings and agribusiness operations in Warren and other Iowa counties, Beattie claimed.

In court documents, the lawyers for Lyon's estate allege that the various trusts and business entities have been set up to allow Rodney Heemstra to retain ownership and control over his financial interests.

Beattie said that prior to the killing, Heemstra and his wife provided creditors with financial statements indicating a net worth between $3.7 million and $4.2 million related to their farm operations.

But 60 days later, "Rodney and Berta literally declared paupership," Beattie said.

Baxter, Heemstra's lawyer, said in his opening statement that the allegations were unfounded. He said attorneys for Lyon's estate faced a high standard of proof that they wouldn't be able to meet. "Mere suspicion, rumor or even strong reason to suspect wrongful activity is inadequate" to prove a conspiracy to defraud, he said.

The evidence will show that the Heemstras were overextended financially and had an enormous amount of debt before the killing, Baxter added.

Berta Heemstra was the first witness called by the Lyons' lawyers Monday. She and her husband now live in Panora in Guthrie County.

Beattie posed a series of questions to her regarding her family's income tax returns and business deals, but she was unable to provide many answers, responding often with, "You would need to ask Rod."

Berta Heemstra said her husband consulted her, but he initiated most plans for their farm operations.