Nov. 2008 – Widow: Slaying destroyed my life

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Des Moines Register. William Petroski. November 8, 2008.

Widow: Slaying destroyed my life

Ronda Lyon broke down Friday as she recounted being forced to sell her Milo family's livestock, farm machinery and cropland since her husband was slain nearly six years ago.

"I felt like ... I was betraying him because it was something that he liked, but it was something I couldn't take care of, so it was the next-best option," the widow said, her voice choking with emotion.

Ronda Lyon, 57, testified on the third day of her family's wrongful death civil trial against rural Warren County farmer Rodney Heemstra. The non-jury trial resumes Monday and is expected to continue through at least Thursday in Polk County District Court.

Heemstra, 49, was freed from the Fort Dodge state prison last week after more than four years behind bars for a voluntary manslaughter conviction. He killed Tom Lyon, 52, with a single rifle shot to the head on Jan. 13, 2003, on a rural Milo road. The slaying followed a series of confrontations between the two men over land and cattle-watering equipment.

Ronda Lyon, wearing a violet sweater and dark slacks, told the court Friday how she married Tom Lyon at Milo Methodist Church in February 1971 when she was just 19 and he was 20. Their wedding photo was introduced into evidence. The couple moved into a nearby farmhouse owned by her parents that she and her husband renovated.

Tom Lyon got a job hauling gravel and began farming on rented land with borrowed farm machinery. He gradually bought land and equipment and acquired livestock. At the time of his death, the couple owned about 390 acres of land, although he raised crops on 1,100 to 1,200 acres, including land he farmed for other people. The couple had a son and daughter, both of whom are now adults.

"He was very proud of those kids, especially since they had gone to college and he had not taken that opportunity," Ronda Lyon said.

After her husband's death, her life was shattered, the widow testified. She managed to cancel a purchase of farmland that had already been completed a month earlier. She sold a cow-calf herd almost immediately because she couldn't care for it. Then in the fall of 2003, she had a sale for the farm machinery.

The Lyon family's farmland was sold just a few months ago. She needed the money and she couldn't keep up the property, she said. She remains in the farmhouse.

"It is not OK, but it was the only thing that I could do," she said.

In earlier testimony Friday, expert witnesses testified that Ronda Lyon remains under psychiatric care for depression and anxiety. They testified that both Ronda and Tom Lyon had sought professional psychiatric help before he was slain.

Psychotherapist Sandra Duncan of Des Moines said she began working with Tom Lyon in May 2002 and she saw him five times before his death. He was given tests showing mild depression and anxiety, and his family doctor prescribed psychiatric medication.

"He told me that his wife was upset with him and was going to call it quits if he didn't come and get help," Duncan said. He acknowledged being verbally abusive to his wife and children and wanted to talk about his problems. But he improved after taking medication, and "I felt their relationship was going to work out fine," she said.

Judge Michael Huppert plans to issue a decision at a later date, although he has already ruled Heemstra was clearly liable for Tom Lyon's death and Lyon's family can seek punitive damages.

The current trial is the second civil suit. Rodney Heemstra was first convicted of first-degree murder, but the Iowa Supreme Court ruled he deserved a new criminal trial after overturning the state's "felony-murder" rule. That led to a new civil trial.