• 27
  • April
    2012

INDIANOLA, IA. - Nine years of legal battles that followed a bitter and tragic dispute between Iowa farm neighbors ended quietly in a Warren County courtroom on Thursday.

During a brief hearing in district court here, Judge Paul Huscher approved a settlement to resolve several long-standing civil lawsuits brought by the estate of Milo farmer Tom Lyon against his neighbor, Rodney Heemstra, and Heemstra's wife, Berta.

The settlement terms were not immediately disclosed, but they involve millions of dollars. Iowa courts have previously ordered the Heemstras to pay Lyon's estate about $7 million, including interest.

A final hearing is expected sometime this summer to approve the distribution of proceeds from the sale of about 1,200 acres of Heemstra's farmland. The money will be used to make payments to Lyon's estate and to satisfy liens and mortgages, taxes, legal bills and other expenses.

Heemstra, now 52, killed the unarmed Lyon with a single shot to the head on Jan. 13, 2003, in Warren County using a .22-caliber rifle he had kept in his pickup truck.

The slaying occurred after a series of arguments over Heemstra's purchase of a rural Milo farm that Lyon had used for feeding his cattle. Both men were well-known, established farmers, and the slaying shocked the small community about 11 miles southeast of Indianola.

Until settlement talks began a month ago, Heemstra had determinedly fought every effort by the Lyon family to collect on the judgments.

"We are pleased," said Ron Danks, a Pleasantville lawyer representing the Lyon estate, after Thursday's court session.

Donald Beattie, whose Des Moines law firm also represents the Lyon family, said Thursday he couldn't discuss the settlement. He also asked Ronda Lyon, the widow of Tom Lyon, not to talk with reporters until all the legal proceedings are concluded.

Heemstra, wearing a blue striped shirt with an open collar, shook hands after the hearing with lawyers representing the Lyon family.

Beattie asked Heemstra during Thursday's hearing, "Mr. Heemstra, do we have an agreement?"

Heemstra stood and said in a firm voice, "That is correct."

Ronda Lyon, wearing a pink blouse and black slacks, sat in the second row of the courtroom with Heemstra several rows behind her.

A settlement had actually been reached in March after Heemstra and lawyers for Lyon's estate huddled at the Warren County Courthouse. But the court had deferred action until Thursday because of questions regarding tax issues involving land transfers.

Heemstra had confessed to authorities after the 2003 slaying, saying the friction between the two men had escalated to the point that Lyon had blocked the road in front of him that morning.

Heemstra claimed Lyon got out of his vehicle to confront him, and his first reaction was to take the rifle out of his truck. He contended Lyon taunted him, daring him to use the rifle. Heemstra later claimed Lyon had lunged at him and his actions were in self-defense.

After killing Lyon, Heemstra chained the farmer's body to his pickup truck and dragged it to a field, where he hid it in a 12-foot-deep cistern under hay bales.

Heemstra was initially found guilty of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison. But the conviction was later overturned by the Iowa Supreme Court, and Heemstra was subsequently convicted of voluntary manslaughter. He was freed in 2008 after spending four years in Iowa's prisons.

But Heemstra's release did not resolve civil lawsuits filed by Lyon's estate, and he was forced to spend many additional days in Iowa courtrooms as a series of lawyers tried to defend him.

In December 2008, after an earlier civil judgment was overturned, Polk County District Judge Michael Huppert ordered Heemstra to pay $5.68 million in damages. He ruled Heemstra had acted to conceal his responsibility for the slaying almost from the moment it happened.

Then in September 2009, Huscher agreed with Lyon's estate that Heemstra and his relatives had used a series of sham transactions in an effort to transfer farmland and other assets to avoid the judgment. The judge called Heemstra "conniving" and "motivated by greed." He ordered an additional $750,000 in punitive damages against Heemstra and his wife, Berta, plus $250,000 in legal fees.

But Heemstra continued to fight, filing motion after motion challenging efforts to sell his farmland. That continued until last month when Heemstra pre-empted a scheduled court hearing by making a settlement offer, which was ultimately accepted.

Prior to the slaying, Rodney and Berta Heemstra had owned about 1,500 acres of land in Warren, Wright, Humboldt, Guthrie and Hancock counties. They also rented about 1,500 acres of farm ground.

The couple listed a net worth of about $4.1 million on a financial statement filed days before Lyon's death. However, the value of Iowa farmland has dramatically increased since then.

Des Moines Register Written by
WILLIAM PETROSKI