Nov. 2008 – Medical examiner, victim’s wife testify at Heemstra trial

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Des Moines Register. William Petroski. November 10, 2008.

Medical examiner, victim's wife testify at Heemstra trial

Milo farmer Tom Lyon had a fistful of grass in his hand when he died, a state medical expert testified today, raising questions about where he was killed in January 2003.

Deputy Iowa Medical Examiner Dennis Klein told a judge in Polk County District Court the grass was removed from Lyon’s hand when his body was brought in for an autopsy. Such a finding is consistent with a so-called “death grip” that sometimes occurs when a person is dying, he said.

Klein testified in the civil trial of a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Ronda Lyon, the slain farmer’s widow, against neighboring farmer Rodney Heemstra, 49.

Heemstra was freed from prison last month after serving four years and four months on a voluntary manslaughter conviction.

Heemstra has testified he shot the unarmed Lyon in the head after a confrontation on a rural Warren County gravel road. But Klein said the finding of the grass in Lyon’s hand was an indication he died in a grassy area rather than a rocky area.

Prosecutors have said that Heemstra chained Lyon’s body to a pickup truck and dragged it more than a mile before he dumped it head first into a cistern in a farm field and covered it with hay bales. Klein said the autopsy showed that Lyon had a bullet wound under his right eyebrow, and he died either immediately or quickly because of brain damage from the bullet. The bloodied body had numerous cuts or abrasions.

Today marks the fourth day of the non-jury trial, which began last week before Judge Michael Huppert. The trial is scheduled to continue through Thursday, when Huppert will take the case under consideration and issue a decision at a later date. Huppert has already ruled Heemstra was clearly liable for Lyon’s death and punitive damages can be sought.

Lyon, 52, had been prescribed medication for depression and anxiety at the time of his death, but Klein testified he found no evidence of a prescription drug in the slain farmer’s body. He acknowledged it was possible Lyon could have taken such medication in the morning and it would not have shown up laboratory tests. The slaying is believed to have occurred shortly before 7 a.m.

Joel Yunek, one of Heemstra’s lawyers, told the court today that Tom Lyon’s last purchase of his medication at an Indianola Wal-Wart store was in May 2002, months before he died. That raised the prospect Lyon hadn’t been taking any psychiatric medication, which had helped him to control mood problems that witnesses have testified included being irritable and verbally abusive to his wife and children.

The two men had previous confrontations over land and cattle-watering equipment. Heemstra had purchased a farm that Lyon was renting for a cow-calf herd, but Heemstra wasn’t scheduled to take possession until March 1, 2003.

Meanwhile, Ronda Lyon testified Monday of her concern that developed into full-fledged worry and the eventual establishment of a search party after her husband failed to return after making a routine morning check on his cattle and property.

The day of his death, she recalled he had been in a good mood after rising at 6:30 a.m., and he told her to stay in bed if she was still tired.

He typically returned each morning at about 7:15 a.m. for breakfast, before he headed out to finish chores, tend to his livestock and grind feed. She said he never anything about Heemstra before he left that day.

She thought it was odd when he didn’t return for breakfast, but she knew he had been installing a drainage tile line at another farm. She thought he would return later than morning. He also had a load of feeder calves to deliver to a Humeston sale barn that afternoon, so she definitely expected him to return home by noon.

She left the house in her car to look for her husband about 12:15 p.m., not finding him installing drainage tile or at another farm where she thought he might oading calves. No one had seen her husband and she couldn’t find him. She also got no response from his cell phone.

Then she headed south and found his pickup truck in a wide farm driveway. She scanned through the soybean field and looked through the pasture but didn’t see any sign of him.

“I walked up beside the pickup and put my hand on the hood and it felt ice cold,” she said. “Then my stomach felt kind of jittery and I thought, “This just isn’t right.”

She hollered for him, but got no response. Then she opened the pickup door and found his cell phone and some winter clothing. She began walking and found one of his gloves on the ground.

“I thought this is dumb. He doesn’t have one of his gloves on…I thought this just doesn’t feel right.”

Authorities were notified that afternoon, and a search party was launched in the Lyon family kitchen. The search headquarters soon moved to the nearby Motor Friends Church community room.

By the next day, Ronda Lyon said she didn’t want to admit the situation was bad. “Deep down I knew it was,” she said.

She learned that Tom Lyon was dead when a deputy came to the church the night of Jan. 14 and told her his body had been found.

Under cross-examination by Heemstra’s lawyers, Ronda Lyon told the court she had never told her husband she planned to divorce him when he experienced mood problems.

“I told him something was not right and he needed help,” she said.

Tom Lyon did seek professional help and began seeing a psychotherapist in Des Moines. At the time of his death, “he was back to himself. He was in a very good mood all the time. Everything was fine,” his widow said.