Oct. 2008 – Heemstra Trial

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October 31 2008 - Heemstra Trial

Fort Dodge, Ia. - Milo farmer Rodney Heemstra, who shot his neighbor after an argument and dumped his body into a cistern nearly six years ago, walked out of prison Tuesday as a free man.

Heemstra, 49, wearing a dark coat and carrying a cardboard box with his belongings, headed out the front door of the Fort Dodge Correctional Facility at 7:55 a.m.

Heemstra spent four years and four months behind bars for the slaying of rural Warren County farmer Tom Lyon, 52, in January 2003. Prosecutors said he killed Lyon with a single rifle shot, then dragged his body more than a mile before dumping it and covering it with hay.

He claimed he killed Lyon in self-defense after Lyon lunged at him. The case generated statewide interest and included two criminal trials and a wrongful death lawsuit that will be heard for the second time in civil trial that starts Nov. 5.

What's next for Heemstra?

He was met by a throng of media and offered no comment and expressed no emotion as he quickly paced through the frosty morning air Tuesday into the prison parking lot. He went directly to a dark, four-door Hyundai sedan, put his box into the trunk, got into the vehicle and was driven away from the prison by his wife, Berta Heemstra.

He is not expected to return to rural Warren County, where some Milo residents still harbor deep animosity toward him. Instead, Heemstra is believed to be moving to the Panora area - about 45 miles west of Des Moines - to a single-family home at Lake Panorama with a triple-space garage and an assessed value of $410,526.

Voting records show Heemstra's wife lives in the house, which is owned by Cool Acres LLC, the same limited liability corporation that owns the family's farm home in the Milo area.

Joseph Hrvol of Council Bluffs, who is Heemstra's lawyer, declined to comment. Guthrie County Sheriff Gary Baird said he was aware of the possibility Heemstra could be moving to the Panora area, but he hadn't confirmed it.

Norm Wadle, a longtime Milo resident, knows the Lyon and Heemstra families and said the whole incident should never have happened.

"It's not a very good deal in a small community like this," Wadle said. "There's nothing we can do."

Heemstra spent his last night Monday at the Fort Dodge facility turning in his state property and packing up, said Warden Cornell Smith.

After waking up Tuesday morning in his cell, Heemstra was allowed an opportunity to shower, then headed to the prison discharge area to get his paperwork. A correctional officer led Heemstra out of the prison, and Fort Dodge police cars were stationed near the parking lot, but he left without incident.

The Iowa Board of Parole had twice rejected Heemstra for release - most recently in May. State officials said they ultimately had no choice about freeing him because he had served the maximum time possible on his 10-year sentence of voluntary manslaughter - including time off for work and good behavior.

Heemstra, who killed Lyon after a series of confrontations over land and cattle-watering equipment, was disciplined by prison officials in May after he was accused of threats and intimidation and breaking other prison rules, prison records show.

An administrative law judge ultimately found Heemstra guilty of obstruction and disruptive conduct, attempt or complicity, and unauthorized possession, said Iowa prison spokesman Fred Scaletta, who declined to elaborate. He said Heemstra received five days of disciplinary detention, but didn't have additional time tacked onto his prison term.

The incident in May was serious enough that Heemstra was moved from the minimum-security North Central Correctional Facility in Rockwell City to the medium-custody Fort Dodge state prison, which is surrounded by a double fence topped with razor wire. Such a shift to a higher level of security is not common for an inmate in the final stages of preparing for release from prison.

Heemstra's case has been unusual. He was originally 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 manslaughter and received credit for his previous time in prison.

Heemstra's release doesn't sit well in Milo, a farming community of 839 people.

"I think it's ridiculous," said Wadle. "I think anybody should have got a lot more sentence. It doesn't seem like it's been but a couple of years."

Jodi Rushing, a pastor for three Methodist churches in Warren County, has seen the emotional effect on the community. Ronda Lyon, Tom's wife, is a member of the Milo United Methodist Church, and Heemstra was a member of the Milo Christian Union Church.

"We can always find hope and help and healing through God," Rushing said. "We can find it through the community of faith through our churches."

Church families offer a place for people to turn when they are feeling frustrated or disappointed, she said.

"I really do believe the community is trying to heal," Rushing said. "We endure; we go through."

The wrongful death civil trial that starts next week will determine the outcome of a lawsuit filed by Lyon's family.

An earlier civil trial - largely based on the murder conviction - resulted in a Warren County judge awarding 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 Lyon's family will be allowed to seek punitive damages in the second trial.