Oct. 2008 – Milo farmer who killed neighbor to be set free

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Des Moines Register. William Petroski. October 22, 2008.

Milo farmer who killed neighbor to be set free

Warren County farmer Rodney Heemstra, who was convicted of killing his neighbor nearly six years ago, will be freed from prison next week.

His discharge could reopen emotional wounds among residents of the small farming community of Milo, where Heemstra, 49, and his victim, Tom Lyon, 52, were well-known.

Heemstra is scheduled to be released from the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility on Tuesday, said Fred Scaletta, an Iowa prisons spokesman.

Heemstra will have spent about 4 years and 4 months behind bars for the slaying of Lyon in January 2003. Prosecutors said Heemstra killed Lyon with a single rifle shot to the head after an argument, then dragged his body more than a mile before placing it in a cistern and covering it with hay. Heemstra claimed he killed Lyon in self-defense after Lyon lunged at him.

Authorities said the deadly incident capped a series of confrontations between the two men over land and cattle-watering equipment.

Heemstra was convicted of first-degree murder in 2003 and was sentenced to life in prison.

Three years later, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled he deserved a new trial. During a second trial last year, he was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Heemstra's release next week is based on him receiving credit for time spent in prison on the murder conviction, Scaletta said.

In Milo, a town of 839, there are still strong feelings about the slaying, said Fire Chief Tom Bales.

Some people in the community continue to harbor resentment toward Heemstra for killing Lyon, he said.

Bales said he believes Heemstra should have spent more time in prison.

"If he shows up around here, there are a few people who are not going to take that well," said Bales, a retired law enforcement officer. "I mean, whether they are talking about it or not, they are not going to take it well."

Jerry Beck, a former commander of American Legion Post 263 in Milo, said that Heemstra should be required to serve a life sentence in prison. He counts himself among Milo residents who won't welcome Heemstra if he returns home.

"He admitted he shot the guy, so why should he be running free?" Beck asked.

Heemstra's lawyer, Joe Hrvol of Council Bluffs, wasn't available for comment about Heemstra's plans or whether he intends to return to the Milo area.

Donald Beattie of Des Moines, a lawyer for Lyon's family, said the family will speak through a civil lawsuit seeking damages against Heemstra.

The lawsuit is scheduled for a second trial, which will start Nov. 5 in Des Moines.

"I am going to be happy that Rodney Heemstra will be able to attend this trial," Beattie said. " ... He will have to give testimony."

Beattie said that a subpoena has been issued to compel Heemstra's appearance in court.

Heemstra was not allowed to attend the first civil trial - a trial largely based on the murder conviction that was thrown out - in which a Warren County judge awarded Lyon's family $11.5 million in damages.

A three-judge panel of the Iowa Supreme Court last year declared the initial civil verdict invalid.

However, District Judge Michael Huppert ruled earlier this year that Heemstra was clearly liable for Lyon's death and that the Lyon family would be allowed to push for punitive damages in the second trial.

Beattie said that Lyon's widow, Ronda, will be happy when all the litigation has ended.

"It has been five long years, almost six," Beattie said.

Heemstra will not be under correctional supervision after his discharge from prison because he will have served the maximum time possible, including time off for work and good behavior, Scaletta said.

State records show Heemstra was denied parole in June 2007 and again last May by the Iowa Board of Parole.

Parole officials recommended in May 2007 that he participate in an anger management program.