Nov. 2008 – Sad day for slain man’s widow

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Des Moines Register. William Petroski. November 16, 2008.

Sad day for slain man's widow

The tragic morning of Jan. 13, 2003, began like many others for Ronda Lyon.

Her husband, 52-year-old Tom Lyon, arose about 6:30 a.m. He was in a good mood and he told his wife to stay in bed if she was tired. She told him goodbye, unknowing it was for the last time.

He had planned to climb into his pickup truck and do "drive-bys" to check his cow-calf herd and his farmland. Then he would come back for breakfast before heading out for a full day of farm work.

But he never returned home, leaving his bewildered wife to launch a desperate, one-woman search covering miles of rural Iowa countryside southeast of Indianola.

That violent day abruptly changed her life. Life changed in big ways. She had to sell their land and cope with the grief of having her husband slain.

Life changed in smaller, more routine ways, too. She always slept with Tom unless he fell asleep in a chair, but now she sleeps alone.

"Hardly a night goes by that doesn't have a dream with him being in it, with he or I doing something."

Here is how Ronda Lyon spent the last day of her husband's life.

Milo farmer Tom Lyon was known as a big, friendly man with an occasional temper who stood 6 feet tall and weighed 226 pounds. Neither Ronda nor Tom had any inkling he would be dead by 7 a.m. that chilly winter Monday, killed by a single rifle shot to the head by neighboring farmer Rodney Heemstra.

Ronda had no idea that Heemstra would chain Lyon's body to the back of a pickup truck, then drag it more than a mile. Then he would dump the battered corpse head-first into a cistern and neatly cover it with bales of green hay. A search party found Lyon's feet sticking up inside the cistern the next day after discovering a patchy trail of blood in a cornfield.

Ronda Lyon, 57, a farm homemaker who married at 19, testified a week and a half ago in a civil trial against Heemstra in Polk County District Court. Judge Michael Huppert took the wrongful death lawsuit under consideration and is expected to decide within about three months. Huppert has already ruled Heemstra was clearly liable for Lyon's death and Lyon's family can seek punitive damages.

Heemstra, 49, was freed from prison in October after serving more than four years on a voluntary manslaughter conviction. He has never expressed remorse for killing the unarmed Lyon.

Defense lawyers last week called several witnesses who described Tom Lyon as angry and deeply disappointed after Heemstra purchased a nearby farm Lyon had rented. Lyon was also unhappy after cattle-watering equipment was turned off while his cows still grazed on the land. Heemstra wasn't due to take possession of the farm until March 1, 2003.

The witnesses raised the possibility that Lyon provoked Heemstra, although a criminal court rejected Heemstra's self-defense claim.

Ronda, like most farm wives, knew her husband's routines. He typically returned to his farmhouse between 7 a.m. and 7:15 each day for breakfast, she said. Then he would head out again to finish his chores and do other farm work. His wife said her husband never said anything about Heemstra the day of his death, nor did he express any concerns about cattle-watering equipment.

Tom never carried any type of a deadly weapon in his pickup truck, she added.

Ronda said she felt it was odd when her husband didn't return for breakfast that morning, but she at least expected him to come back for a breakfast bar so he could have something to eat.

She had known he was working on installing a tile drainage line at another farm, and she thought he would return later in the morning. "It felt uncomfortable, but I let it go," she recalled.

That afternoon, Tom had planned to transport a load of feeder calves to a livestock sales barn in Humeston. Ronda knew enough about his routine that he would have returned by noon. He planned to work with a hired hand to haul the livestock for extra income and he would have been there checking the semi-trailer and getting it ready. So she planned to have dinner ready for him by noon.

When Tom didn't show up, she left the house to look for him about 12:15 p.m. She thought it was not like him to be late. So she got in her car and headed north to the intersection where they lived and went to the area where she expected him to be installing tile. But he wasn't there, so she thought he had gone west to another farm where he planned to load the calves. But no one there had seen Tom, and she couldn't find him.

"From there I went back home and tried calling him. I tried calling him earlier in the morning on his cell phone," Ronda said.

She began driving her car south and saw Tom's pickup in a wide farm driveway. She pulled her vehicle up and got out and walked toward the pickup. She scanned through the field and looked through the cows to see if he was out walking in the pasture.

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

She started hollering for him and looked again for him in the pasture.

"I hollered and there was no sound," she said. The cows just kept eating. She opened the pickup door and found his cell phone and some of his winter clothing. She began walking and found one of his gloves on the ground.

"I thought that is dumb. He doesn't have one of his gloves on. ... I thought this just doesn't feel right."

She saw some footprints that headed toward the road, and got more nervous. She said the footprints looked like Tom's from a type of boot that he wore.

She eventually called for help and a search party was organized by the Warren County Sheriff's Department. The headquarters for the search started in her kitchen, but soon a large search party gathered that grew to about 200 neighbors, friends and others, and the rural Motor Friends Church community room became the headquarters. Lyon had been known as the mayor of Motor, an unincorporated area where he and Ronda resided a few miles northeast of Milo. He was known for his community involvement and as someone who checked on property when owners were away.

The search party had been organized probably about 3:30 or 4 p.m. Ronda said she was numb.

"I knew there was something wrong, but I couldn't figure out what it was ... nothing was making sense."

By the next day, Ronda didn't want to admit the situation was bad.

"Deep down I knew it was."

Tom's body was found about 11 p.m. on Tuesday. She learned he was dead when a deputy came to the church to speak with her.

Heemstra, who was also a well-known, respected Milo farmer, was arrested the next day. He confessed to killing Tom Lyon.

Ronda Lyon's life has never been the same since that day in 2003. A series of criminal and civil court battles involving Heemstra since her husband's death hasn't helped. She hopes to someday start putting the tragedy behind her so her healing can finally begin.

She had to sell their cow-calf herd soon after Tom's death, along with their farm machinery. Over the past summer, she sold their farmland, although she still lives in their farmhouse. It's been her home since the early 1970s and where she and Tom raised their son, Bart, and daughter, Cheri, who are both college-educated adults.

Ronda said she misses Tom and has had difficulty adjusting to the life of a farm widow. She still takes medication to help her cope. She hasn't been able to get rid of some of his work clothes, and she only recently put away his aftershave and cologne. She dismisses contentions by Heemstra's lawyers that her husband was moody and their marriage was troubled. She said he had successfully sought professional therapy when problems arose, and he was fine at the time of his death.

She remains active in church and has friends that she goes out to supper with, but she is not out socializing every day.

Her lawyer, Donald Beattie, softly questioned her in court about the loss of her husband.

"Ronda, have you been able to move on?" he asked.

"I guess I am living each day, but as far as moving on, I am just stuck," she admitted.