Nov. 2008 – Update: Heemstra testifies in second civil trial

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Des Moines Register. William Petroski. November 5, 2008.

Update: Heemstra testifies in second civil trial

The killing of Milo farmer Tom Lyon was a “despicable” act that robbed Ronda Lyon, his wife and high school sweetheart, of her way of life in rural Warren County, her lawyer said today.

“Ronda was left without a husband. ... Her future has literally been destroyed,” said lawyer Donald Beattie in opening arguments in a wrongful death lawsuit.

Beattie described the slain farmer as a hard working, respected figure in the community. He decried the killing by Rodney Heemstra, a neighboring farmer, and he said the assailant has never shown any remorse for ending the life of a defenseless man.

Lawyer Joseph Hrvol, who is defending Heemstra in the civil trial in Polk County District Court, made no effort to argue that his client didn’t kill Lyon. That finding has already been made by the jury that convicted him of voluntary manslaughter, which resulted in Heemstra spending more than four years in prison.

“This has been a tragedy for two families, not just one,” Hrvol said.

Trial expected to last 6 days

The non-jury trial, expected to last six days, began this morning before District Judge Michael Huppert. Prosecutors have said the deadly incident occurred in January 2003 after a series of confrontations between the two men over land and cattle-watering equipment.

An earlier civil trial – largely based on a murder conviction that was overturned – 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.

Huppert ruled earlier this year that Heemstra was clearly liable for Lyon’s death. He said Lyon’s family will be allowed to seek punitive damages in the trial that began today.

Prosecutors said Heemstra killed Lyon with a single .22-caliber rifle shot to the head, then dragged his body more than a mile before dumping it in a cistern and covering it with hay. Heemstra claimed self-defense after Lyon lunged at him. Heemstra has also alleged Lyon had taunted him that morning, calling him names and dared him to shoot.

Ronda Lyon, dressed in powder blue, sat quietly today with her lawyers, sobbing quietly at times while Beattie described her life with Tom Lyon. The couple had two adult children, both college graduates, and Tom Lyon was realizing his dream of being a farmer. They married when she was 19 and he was 20 and they spent 32 years together, her lawyer said.

“Tom Lyon had everything to live for and nothing to die for,” said Beattie, who spoke for about 40 minutes in his opening statement.

Prior to Lyon’s death, he did have some depression related to his daughter’s health problems and because his farm weighed on him, Beattie said. But he had sought professional help and was “back to himself” on the day he died, Beattie said.

Ronda Lyon still needs counseling and takes anti-depression medication to help cope with her grief, Beattie said. He told how the widow has dreams at night that her husband is still alive, only to wake in the morning to realize he is gone.

Beattie said Lyon had started farming with borrowed equipment and had an estimated worth of about $1.3 million when he died. He had the potential to earn much more if he hadn’t been killed, the lawyer said.

Defense lawyer Hrvol cautioned during his 15 minutes of opening remarks that Heemsta has already been convicted of the killing and that the criminal case shouldn’t be retried.

The fatal incident stemmed from a combination of factors related to Heemstra purchasing farm land that Lyon had wanted, Hrvol said. He described Lyon as a much larger man than Heemstra and an angry person. Heemstra now feels that he should simply have taken a beating from Lyon, the lawyer said.

Lyon had been going through difficult times with his marriage and his farming operation, which contributed to the confrontation, Hrvol said.

“This is an event that never should have happened,” Hrvol said.

Heemstra, 49, who was freed from the Fort Dodge state prison last week, was called to the witness stand late this morning. He wore a black blazer, charcoal slacks, and a white striped shirt with a red print tie.

Beattie repeatedly queried him about details of several confessions he made about the slaying. He forced him to admit that he killed a defenseless man, didn’t seek emergency help, hid the body, and then initially lied to investigators.

“You were avoiding trying to tell the truth, weren’t you?” Beattie asked Heemstra.

“I would say so,” Heemstra replied.

“As a matter of fact, when you killed Tom Lyon nobody else will ever know the truth except you?” Beattie asked Heemstra, who nodded affirmatively.

Heemstra also admitted burning his bloody clothes afterward, and hiding the weapon.

“I was more repelled by the gun. I didn’t want to see it,” Heemstra said. “I was in a state of shock. It didn’t make sense to me.”

Heemstra was expected to testify more this afternoon.