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By John Larson Correspondent
Dateline NBC on Aug. 27
Two farmers met at dawn in a fight over real estate — and one of them made a killing
“The only thing I regret about that morning is the fact that was one morning I didn’t follow him out to the back door and give him a kiss before he went off to chore,” says Ronda Lyon. “That was the last I saw him.”
When Ronda Lyon’s husband Tom left to work the fields on a cold January morning four and a half years ago, she could have never predicted what was about to unfold — the taking of her husband’s life in a manner so gruesome it would shake a small midwestern farming community to its core.
Milo is cradled in the farmlands of Iowa, 30 miles south of Des Moines as the crow flies. With just over 800 people, it appears a nearly perfect picture of the midwest heartland. The crops patchwork the country like a quilt. Here John Deere is king, the state fair rules, and routine is the way of life.
Pastor Smith: My closest neighbor is a quarter mile away. We live in a community where there is– you watch out for each other. Very seldom do you lock your doors or take your keys out of your car.
Keith Smith is the pastor of a local church. He lived right next door to Ronda Lyon and her husband Tom in a part of town known as Motor. Tom was a longtime farmer known for his practical jokes and his funny nickname.
Pastor Smith: He was kindly called the mayor of Motor … and he had business cards made up and as a joke he handed out “Mayor of Motor” cards. And he looked out for the community.
According to Ronda Lyon, her husband Tom was a larger-than-life character. He and Ronda were married for 32 years and raised two children. But farming is a tough way to make a living, and the mayor knew it — and so did Rod Heemstra, who was a farmer just down the road from Tom and Ronda.
Rodney Heemstra: I started farming as soon as I got out of high school, back in 1977.
Heemstra got married a few years later and the young couple had two boys. He first met Tom Lyon nearly 30 years ago selling pigs. But as a fourth generation farmer, Rod Heemstra now knew the secret to modern farming success: expand or perish.
Rodney Heemstra: To have a viable farming operation in the midwest today, you have to continue to add acres.
That’s why when a prime piece of land goes on the market, like it did back in the summer of 2002, that friendly midwestern manner we’ve all heard so much about can turn cutthroat.
This time the land going up for sale was called the Rogers Place, some of the richest farmland in this entire area. For years, Tom Lyon had rented and farmed the Rogers Place and now he wanted to buy it. After all, it’s just across the road from his own home. But before he knew it, a farmer just down the road, Rod Heemstra, closed the deal.
Rodney Heemstra: I learned a long time ago that if you don’t move on them relatively quickly somebody else may come in the next morning and then you’ve lost the deal.
So Rod Heemstra now owned it, but Tom Lyon’s rental agreement still had a few months to run, and Lyon’s cows would still be grazing on the property. Soon, there was bad blood between the two men.
Rodney Heemstra: I’d be back there checking the waters or whatever. And he’d be getting out of his pickup and follow me around. And he’d say, “You know, I’m going to make damn sure you don’t end up with this farm.”
But the routines of farming in the Iowa town marched along. The state fair came and went. The fall harvest rolled by. The holidays passed, until the morning of Monday, Jan. 13, 2003, when Tom Lyon went missing.
John Larson: What’s the first inkling you had that something had gone wrong?
Ronda Lyon: Oh, between 8:30 and 9:00, I kinda was surprised that he hadn’t come back to the house, 160440 and I kept thinking, “I wonder why he isn’t coming in.”
Tom Lyon was not answering his cell phone, so Ronda went looking. She found Tom’s pickup truck parked just down the road.
Ronda Lyon: That’s when I got scared and I thought something is wrong with this picture.
Police were called, and with the help of the local fire department launched a search. Word of Tom’s disappearance quickly spread.
Ronda Lyon: I couldn’t believe what was going on. It didn’t seem right.
For the next two days, in bitter cold, the 100’s of neighbors and friends Tom looked out for as the unofficial mayor of motor, were now looking for him.
John Larson (Dateline correspondent): You saw search parties?
Rodney Heemstra: Yes.
John Larson: Neighbors out there looking in the fields?
Rodney Heemstra: Yeah.
John Larson: What’d you think at that point?
Rodney Heemstra: I was just numb. My mind was numb.
What could have possibly have happened to Tom Lyon in the middle of a field? Everyone had a theory. Maybe he had a heart attack, or maybe he’d committed suicide. Tom Lyon had been depressed. He’d been having a tough time making ends meet on the farm, and his daughter had serious health problems. But there was even a more sinister possibility. The area was known to hide meth labs — drug dealers.
Ronda Lyon: What if somebody was doing something and at gunpoint they took him. And somewhere along the line, they had disposed of his body that way.
Night fell, and the temperature plummeted well below freezing.
About two o’clock that next afternoon, 24 hours after he’d been reported missing, searchers found something on a dried corn stalk. It was blood.
Pastor Smith: At that point they had a crime scene.
Police soon followed a trail of blood to a nearby farm when captain Tom McNamara, a local sheriff’s deputy, sat Ronda down.
Pastor Smith: I remember sitting on the front row with her and McNamara saying, “Ronda, what color watch did Tom wear?” and she said, “I think it was a silver Timex.” And he says, “We found a silver Timex in the field.”
Police then made the grisly discovery. It was the body of Tom Lyon stuffed head-first into an old well. His clothes, even the skin on his face, was ripped apart. Police broke the news to Ronda.
Ronda Lyon: And it was later on in the evening they came in and told us that they had found his body.
The small town had its first murder in more than 100 years.
Keith Smith: I mean, this is rural Iowa. These things don’t happen in rural Iowa. These things happen in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles. Not at Motor.
John Larson: What did the police ask you about who might have done this to him?
Ronda Lyon: Would there have been anyone that I could think of in the community that he would have gotten into an argument with.
Ronda recalled a run-in Tom had a few months back over that piece of land he and Rod Heemstra had been arguing about. In fact, after he bought the property, Rod Heemstra turned off the water, leaving her husband’s cattle high and dry.
Ronda Lyon: And I think there was just a festering there, and he just decided then I’ll show you. And I’ll get you out of the way.
John Larson: At what point did you know the police were looking at you?
Rodney Heemstra: When they pulled in the driveway, I guess.
Heemstra told detectives he had no idea what happened to Tom Lyon. In fact, he said he hadn’t seen Tom since the week before.
But then, detectives saw what appeared to be blood on Heemstra’s pickup. But before they could analyze it, an emotional and apparently exhausted Rod Heemstra sat with deputies in an unmarked police car, broke down, and confessed. He had killed Tom Lyon.
Rod Heemstra: Oh, god. I’m terrible.
Police: So it was one shot. What– and this was a rifle? Like a .22 rifle or what?
Heemstra: It’s a .22.
Detective: It’s a .22?
Heemstra: It’s a .22 semi-automatic.
According to Rod Heemstra, he was driving past Tom Lyon’s house early that morning, when Tom pulled out in front of him, slowed down, and then blocked the road.
Both men got out of their trucks and the bad blood which had been simmering between the two since the farm sale erupted. Rod Heemstra said that Tom Lyon was so enraged, so threatening that he went back to his pickup, got out his rifle and pointed it at Tom Lyon, hoping the sight of the rifle would calm Lyon down.
Heemstra: I was mad and scared both. I mean, I had a lot of mixed emotions.
And though police arrested Rod Heemstra and charged him with first-degree premeditated murder, Heemstra insisted he was the one threatened that day, that he only acted out of self-defense after months of being bullied by Tom Lyon.
Was it self-defense or murder?
A jury would soon hear two very different accounts of what happened early one morning down this cold country road.
In this small Iowa town, almost everyone knew the farmer who had been killed or the farmer who had confessed to doing it. So the trial was moved to the far western part of the state, in Sioux City.
The courtroom was packed with supporters for both men. On one side sat Tom Lyon’s wife and children, and on the other were Rod Heemstra’s wife and parents.
Prosecutors opened their case by telling the jury the murder had been cold blooded and pre-meditated. They had a murder weapon and a confession to prove it.
Gary Kendell (prosecutor): This case is about the defendant getting mad, losing his temper, and shooting a defenseless man.
But why would Rod Heemstra, a successful farmer who had never hurt anyone in his life, suddenly shoot Tom Lyon?
It all started, prosecutors said, when Rod Heemstra bought that farm across the street from Tom and Ronda Lyon. Heemstra was angry that Lyon wouldn’t allow him to begin farming the land until after Lyon’s lease was up, and the two men began fighting a war of words. But, prosecutors said, the flashpoint came a few months later, when Heemstra shut off a water to Tom Lyon’s cattle and the two men ended up screaming at each other over the telephone.
Prosecutor: Who’s this a photograph of?
Ronda Lyon: A picture of Tom.
Lyon’s widow, Ronda, took the stand, and testified she could hear an enraged Heemstra on the other end of the phone line.
Ronda Lyon: I remember one of the comments being, “Hey buddy nobody talks to me like that and gets by with it.”
Prosecutors said the confrontations continued until Jan. 13, when Rod Heemstra — arrogant, a man with a hair trigger temper — was fed up.
Doug Hammerand: His temper got the best of him, and he just was so angry with Tom Lyon that he decided on that day that he had the opportunity. He had a gun available, and he used it.
Prosecutors knew the defense would soon claim self-defense and try to portray Tom Lyon as a mentally unstable man who caused the problem in the first place.
Judge: Raise your right hand.
So they called several people who knew Lyon to paint a much different picture, a portrait of a kind-hearted and peaceful farmer.
Prosecutor: Do you have an opinion as to whether Tom Lyon was a peaceful or violent person?
Pfiffer: Um, from what of I know of Tom Lyon, he was not violent.
Cleveland: My opinion he was very peaceful.
Reynolds: I never had, uh, the opportunity to see anything other than positives and laughs and smiles come out of him.
And Lyon’s widow testified that while her husband could be a hothead at times, he was hardly the kind of mentally unbalanced man who would provoke a deadly confrontation.
Prosecutor: Did you ever see him with his temper assault a human being?
Ronda Lyon: No. Uh-nuh.
But in order to prove first-degree murder, prosecutors needed to show that Heemstra had time to think, that the killing was pre-meditated and not self-defense. They called the medical examiner to the stand.
Prosecution: Did you recover a bullet fragment from Mr. Lyon’s body?
Medical Examiner: Yes, I did.
Prosecution: And where was that recovered from?
Medical examiner: It was recovered from inside the head, actually within the right side of the brain.
He testified Lyon had been shot between the eyes — too good a shot, too calculated for self-defense.
Prosecution: Do you have an opinion to within a reasonable degree of medical certainty as to the manner of death?
Medical examiner: Yes, I do.
Prosecution: And what is that opinion?
Medical examiner: Homicide.
Doug Hammerand: He shot him right between the eyes which we argued showed that he had an intent, a specific intent, to kill Tom Lyon.
Next, prosecutors argued that Rod Heemstra’s actions after the murder were the actions of a guilty man. They used the testimony of a sheriff’s deputy, along with a display of graphic crime scene photos, to try to prove Heemstra was a callous cold-blooded killer attempting an elaborate cover-up.
Prosecutors told the jury Heemstra had hitched Tom Lyon’s body to the back of his pickup and dragged him, they said, face down along a gravel road, tearing the flesh from his face and body.
McNamara: The pants are ripped, and there’s no shirt on the victim.
Prosecutors said Heemstra then drove into a nearby field where he stuffed Lyon head first into an old abandoned well and covered the well with bales of hay.
McNamara: We could see human legs sticking up out of a hole.
Finally, prosecutors said, Heemstra went home, took a bath, and astoudingly ran errands with his wife. Prosecutors said Heemstra then secretly burned his clothes and ditched the murder weapon at another one of his farms.
Douglas Hammerand: You don’t expect someone to kill someone in self-defense to drag the body, hide the body, to burn the clothes you’re wearing, to get rid of the murder weapon.
But the most powerful argument, prosecutors said, was what happened after detective Mike Morrison first arrived to question Rod Heemstra — and Heemstra lied.
Morrison: I think I said something to the effect that we were investigating the death of Tom Lyon and if he was involved in causing the death that he needed to tell me that right away.
Prosecution: What did he say?
Morrison: He said no.
The detective said Heemstra then tried to strike a bizarre deal: if police promised to let him go to a business meeting on another land deal the next day, Heemstra would tell them what happened.
Morrison: I told Mr. Heemstra that if this meeting in Algona was truly important that it would happen.
Prosecution: So what did the defendant do or say after that?
Morrison: He told me what happened.
Prosecutors then put forth the most compelling part of their case, and it was damning evidence: Rod Heemstra’s tape recorded conversations, proving, they said, that this was first-degree murder.
Heemstra: He started taunting me. He says, “Oh, look at you. I dare you” … Well, I done it. I shot once. I couldn’t believe it after I’d done it.
Doug Hammerand: Just because a person’s arguing and yelling and using names doesn’t give another person a right to kill them.
It was clear, prosecutors said: this tape proved this was a premeditated, deliberate act.
Doug Hammerand: There was a time period, even though he was mad and angry, he had time to think and act, and that goes to premeditation. I mean, when he put that shell in the chamber, he had time to think about it. And when he pointed the gun at Tom Lyon he had time to think about it.
Finally, prosecutors said, Rod Heemstra made a bombshell of an admission proving once again that this was murder, that Heemstra was not defending himself when he shot and killed Tom Lyon.
(Police interrogation video)
Detective: You mentioned that he– that he didn’t have anything in his hands when I talked to you…
Detective: …over there earlier?
Heemstra: No. He didn’t. No. I shot a defenseless man.
Gary Kendell: The perfect quote from his statement was that he’d shot a defenseless man.
And that, prosecutors told the jury, was huge. Their point being that this was murder.
John Larson: Had this thing really been self-defense? What do you think the jury would have expected Rodney Heemstra to do the moment after the shot was fired?
Douglas Hammerand: Call for help.
John Larson: Anybody.
Douglas Hammerand: Anybody. Either law enforcement, ambulance, somebody, to get help.
(Police interrogation video)
Heemstra: It just all happened so quick…
Prosecutors had it all. A confession. A motive. And a trail of stunning, seemingly callous acts. All of which they said leaves no doubt that Heemstra should be found guilty of murder in the first degree.
But the jury was about to hear about a very differnent Tom Lyon. They were going to hear about a Jekyl and Hyde character whose temper exploded, forcing a panicked Rod Heemstra to fight for his life.
Prosecutors had just painted Rod Heemstra as a farmer so angry, so upset with another farmer over a piece of land, that he shot him in cold blood, covered up the crime and confessed only when detectives confronted him.
But the defense was about to make its case that this was not cold blooded murder — but self-defense.
Leon Spies: The evidence will show in this case that what faced Rod Heemstra on Jan. 13 was fear and panic giving rise to an unmistakable belief in Rod Heemstra’s mind that the bad blood that had festered in Tom Lyon and grown to the point that he, Rod Heemstra was in fear for his life.
In order to prove that Rod Heemstra had reason to fear Tom Lyon, defense attorney Leon Spies needed to change the jury’s picture of the victim, and how he behaved. He began with Lyon’s widow, Ronda.
The defense said Tom Lyon had a temper and his marriage was on the rocks. He was suffering from depression, and needed anti-depressant medication to keep him balanced.
Spies: You were so concerned about his not taking his medication that you gave him an ultimatum didn’t you?
Lyon: Yes, I did. I told him if he chose not to take his medicine, then I wasn’t sure what would happen to the two of us.
The judge would not allow the defense to examine Tom Lyon’s medical records. But Heemstra’s lawyer was able to uncover evidence that in the months leading up to the fatal confrontation, Lyon was not taking his prescription medication, leaving him, the defense argued, unbalanced and prone to violence.
Leon Spies: We knew from the autopsy that had been conducted by Dr. Klein that they found no remnants of antidepressant or prescription medications at therapeutic levels in Tom’s blood.
John Larson: Which would suggest that he was off his meds?
Leon Spies: He was off his meds.
He was off his meds maybe much of the time he was fighting with Heemstra, like during that heated telephone call Ronda had overheard.
Spies: And he used very angry words when he spoke to Mr. Heemstra on the phone?
Lyon: Yes he did.
Spies: And some of those words were unkind and vulgar?
Lyon: Yes they were.
The defense questioned another witness who spoke to Tom Lyon’s apparent anger management problem.
Spies: And you knew Tom didn’t like Rodney?
Keeney: He had made derogatory statements about him, yes.
Spies: And after Rod Heemstra bought the Rogers Place, there were other instances when you knew that Tom Lyon was upset with Rod Heemstra?
Spies: And you just told us, apparently in October, sometime after October of 2002, Tom Lyon said to you “What if I beat the little son of a bitch up?”
Keeney: That is correct.
Spies: And he was talking about Rodney Heemstra?
All of a sudden Tom Lyon was not just a passive, innocent victim. It sounded like the defense was on to something, that maybe Tom Lyon, angry, off his meds, threatening violence, really was dangerous.
The defense next called witnesses who said, in the months leading up to the fatal shooting, that Tom Lyon was the aggressor. That Lyon had threatened Heemstra, cursing at him when they crossed paths, swerving at him on the road, provoking Heemstra, saying he would never get the Rodgers farm. In fact, the defense said, Tom Lyon went beyond verbal threats and used physical violence against those who stood in his way.
The defense called Dennis Dittmer, a local farmer whose testimony seemed to land like a one-two punch. First, he said he too had been attacked by an almost insane Tom Lyon.
Dittmer: And he just kind of almost grabbed me and picked me up and held me against the truck. And I just said put me down Tom, and I had to tell him three times, and he finally put me down. I don’t think he knew what he was doing.
And second, Dittmer said, he was so concerned about violence that he made it a point to warn his friend, Rod Heemstra.
Dittmer: I told him to stay away, avoid any conflict.
Spies: With Tom?
But that wasn’t all. The defense called another farmer who helped make the case for self-defense. Evan Kibbe said he warned Rod Heemstra he had overheard Tom Lyon talking in a dangerous way in the months leading up to the shooting.
Kibbe: I heard him behind the long barn, yelling about something. That he ought to just shoot the son of a bitch and go on.
And there was something else that he overheard suggesting that Lyon was a real danger to Rod Heemstra.
Spies: Did you say anything to Mr. Heemstra about Tom having a gun?
Kibbe: I told him that he had said bought one and he was carrying it behind the seat of his pick up.
Leon Spies: So fueled with that knowledge, and fueled with the other encounters that he and Tom had had, there was this growing apprehension in Rodney that things were going bad.
So it was, said the defense, that a fearful Rod Heemstra himself began carrying a rifle behind the seat of his pickup for his own protection when he traveled to the Rogers farm.
Rodney Heemstra: I started going over before daylight so that he wouldn’t see me and come down there and try to have a confrontation.
John Larson: Just avoid him?
Rodney Heemstra: Y– exactly, that was the whole crux of it right there.
John Larson: Did it work?
Rodney Heemstra: It did until January 13.
The defense appeared to have successfully portrayed the victim in a new, disturbing light, but it would still have to explain why an innocent Rod Heemstra would work so hard to cover up an act of self-defense, and why he had never defended himself in those powerful taped confessions.
(Police interrogation video)
Heemstra: I shot a defenseless man.
It would be a turning point in the trial. The defense called its star witness: the killer himself.
The jurors had just heard from friends and farmers, experts and police.
But now they were about to hear from Rod Heemstra himself, and the prosecution had reason to worry.
Gary Kendell: If there is a stereotypical defendant, he wasn’t it.
John Larson: He certainly didn’t look like the guy you would think would be a murderer.
Gary Kendell: Right. He looks like your neighbor.
Defense attorney Leon Spies boldly addressed the shooting head-on. Rod Heemstra seemed somber and remorseful.
Spies: Did you expect, when you got out of your truck, that Tom Lyon would die?
Spies: Did you plan to kill Tom Lyon?
Spies: As you brought your truck to a stop did you have any idea that the day would turn out the way that it turned out?
Heemstra: Huh. No idea whatsoever (shaking head).
He described Tom Lyon’s growing threats, and said he was afraid of Lyon. He said on the morning of the shooting, Tom Lyon blocked the road, forcing a confrontation, and Lyon was suddenly terrifying.
Heemstra: (emotional) When he shoved me I just thought, I’m in a lot of trouble here.
John Larson: This was uncontrolled rage?
Rodney Heemstra: Yes it was.
John Larson: And it was coming at you?
Rodney Heemstra: Yeah. I don’t think four men could have manhandled him that morning very easily at all. With their bare hands? No.
John Larson: The– now if he had wanted to beat you up, could he have done it?
Rodney Heemstra: Oh yeah. I mean, I’ve never been in a fight in my life.
Leon Spies: So we tried to demonstrate not only through Rod’s testimony about his own growing sense of concern, growing alarm, that this was festering and growing to a point of ignition.
Rod Heemstra testified he took out the rifle hoping it would snap Lyon out of his rage, but it only made it worse.
Heemstra: He said, “You —-, you don’t have the balls to pull that trigger.” And he lunged at me, and I shot him (cries).
Spies: Why did you shoot him?
Heemstra: I was afraid for myself. (cries) I was afraid for my life. (cries)
He then said he had disposed of the body and the weapon because he was so repulsed, so confused by what had happened that it was like someone else was doing it, like he was in a dream.
And about the bombshell? His confession that he had shot a defenseless man?
Rod Heemstra says those were the detectives words, not his.
Heemstra: Morrison asked me if he had anything in his hands, any weapon, and I said “No, he didn’t have anything in his hands.” And he said “Well, then you shot a defenseless man.” And I said “Well, I guess if you put it that way, I shot a defenseless man.”
The defense questioned the detective about this.
Spies: You weren’t trying to get him to fabricate something?
Morrison: I was just trying telling him what I thought might have happened.
John Larson: Was there any part of you that said, “I’m sick of this guy and I’m going to end this?
Rodney Heemstra: No. No. That’s just not my nature.
Now it was the prosecution’s turn. Doug Hammerand did the cross-examination. The somber and remorseful Rod Heemstra now seemed somewhat agitated and evasive.
Prosecution: You weren’t happy with the way he was calling you names?
Heemstra: Well, would you be happy if he was calling you those names?
Prosecution: Did you understand my question?
And in a moment reminiscent of the O.J. Simpson trial, prosecutors made the risky move of asking Rod Heemstra to hold the murder weapon before the jury.
Prosecution: Show us how you pointed the gun at Tom Lyon, I’m Tom Lyon.
Douglas Hammerand: And he was, you know, trying to act like he was really scared of the gun.
Heemstra: You sure this is OK to do?
Prosecution: I’m asking you to demonstrate how you did it.
Douglas Hammerand: I think I had to ask him a couple of times to show me again how he had the gun held up…
Heemstra: OK. I had the gun like this (demonstrates)
Prosecution: You were pointing it away?
Heemstra: No, I was pointing it at Tom Lyon.
Prosecution: show us how you were pointing it at Tom Lyon.
Heemstra: OK, so as I walked around.
Douglas Hammerand: …so I don’t think it came across well.
John Larson: At least, at that point, you thought that your gamble had paid off.
Douglas Hammerand: Correct.
And then the prosecutor hammered Rod about the taped confessions. About his obvious and stunning omission — what he didn’t say.
Prosecution: But neither that interview or later on did you tell them anything about Tom Lyon lunging at you. Isn’t that correct?
Heemstra: In the two, uh, um, taped interviews, uh, I guess I didn’t, no.
He was grilled about his self-damning confession.
Prosecution: When you shot Tom, what was in his hands?
Heemstra: He had nothing in his hands.
Prosecution: He was a defenseless man, wasn’t he?
Heemstra: He was an unarmed man, that’s correct.
Prosecution: You used the word “defenseless man” in your taped interviews didn’t you?
Heemstra: Yes, um-hum.
The prosecutor then attacked Heemstra’s claim of self-defense, repeating his elaborate cover-up, dragging the body, throwing it down the well and hiding the gun.
Prosecution: And you didn’t want them to find Tom Lyon’s body. Why were you concerned if this was self-defense?
Heemstra: I don’t know why. I mean, I don’t know why I done all that afterwards. I have to live with that the rest of my life, what I done afterwards. I can’t explain it. (chokes up)
Judge: Sir, you can step down.
Finally, after three emotional hours on the stand, an exhausted Rod Heemstra stepped down.
Leon Spies: This always came down to a case of what the jury believed about Rod and felt about Rod. And I thought he was the most compelling evidence.
But would his performance on the stand be enough to help him beat a first-degree murder charge? He was about to find out.
After five days of emotional testimony and compelling evidence, the fate of Rod Heemstra was finally in the jury’s hands.
We sat down with three of the twelve jurors: a banker, a salesman and a daycare provider.
Cheri Goeden: When I walked in I saw him and I thought, “That couldn’t of been the guy,” at first.
As soon as deliberations began, one of their fellow jurors delivered a shocker.
Cheri Goeden: We all sat down and the first thing he said is “I will not convict him of murder one.”
John Larson: No way.
Cheri Goeden: Don’t ask me.
Matt Campbell: One statement was made is that the state did not prove without a reasonable doubt that this was a murder one case.
Cheri Goeden: Yes.
Jurors quickly moved to the events of Jan. 13 and how it all came to be. Many thought the victim, Tom Lyon, was in fact a bully, taunting Heemstra in the months leading up to the shooting.
Cheri Goeden: I think he just got fed up with being bullied. You know at some point he was being bullied. Otherwise what really caused this.
John Larson: Who do you think precipitated the confrontation that morning?
Matt Campbell: I guess you have to think that Tom did.
But the jury then wondered, even if Tom Lyon was a bully, and threatened Rod Heemstra that morning, did that justify using a rifle?
John Larson: At any point in this trial were you thinking, you know, this really could’ve been self-defense?
Matt Campbell: Sure.
Cheri Goeden: Oh yeah.
As they poured over the events on Jan. 13, jurors began having doubts. Why hadn’t Heemstra just backed away?
Dan Ballard: I mean, he had a lot of outs, Rodney did. But going around actually grabbing a gun, then chambering and bullet. And that was his last resort I thought.
And what happened after the shooting troubled the jury even more.
John Larson: This was somebody who essentially had been dragged behind a truck on his face. What did that tell you or what did that suggest to you about Rodney Heemstra?
Matt Campbell: There was no concern for Tom. There’s more concern for–
Cheri Goeden: –himself.
Matt Campbell: “Let’s get this thing done as quickly as possible.”
And what about those tapes? The jury played them over and over.
John Larson: What were you listening for in those taped confessions?
Cheri Goeden: The difference between him on the testimo– on the stand and the tape. What he said in the tape.
John Larson: What did it tell you?
Cheri Goeden: He was very well coached up on the stand.
It all boiled down to a simple question. Did Rod Heemstra shoot Tom Lyon in cold blood, or did he act in self-defense? In the end, the jurors returned to that bombshell of a line from the defendant himself.
(Police interrogation video)
Heemstra: I shot a defenseless man.
John Larson: Those words were key?
Dan Ballard: To me they were.
A packed and anxious courtroom was about to hear the verdict.
John Larson: When the jury came back, what did you expect?
Rod Heemstra: I didn’t know what to expect.
Ronda Lyon: Quite frankly, I was scared. I had reached a point where I was kind of hoping we didn’t ever have to end that particular moment because I really didn’t want to hear what the jurors had to say.
Judge: We have the jury.
…the moment of truth.
We the jury find the defendant Rodney Neil Heemstra guilty of murder in the first-degree.
Even that one holdout juror was ultimately persuaded by the evidence against the defendant. Rod Heemstra was convicted of first-degree murder.
Ronda Lyon: And after I heard it, I couldn’t believe it. I kept thinking “They really did this. They really saw the truth. They figured this out.”
Ronda Lyon had remained quiet in the 11 months since her husband’s murder.
She ended her silence at Rod Heemstra’s sentencing hearing, challenging her husband’s killer directly.
Ronda Lyon: I hope you suffer every day for the rest of you, of your life. Whether it be at the hands of another inmate who calls you his little woman. Do you understand what that means?
Under Iowa law, Rod Heemstra was automatically sentenced to life in prison without parole. But this case was far from over.
A new dramatic twist was about to come — something almost no one in this small midwest farming town would have predicted.
As Rod Heemstra went off to serve a life sentence for the murder of fellow farmer Tom Lyon, he continued to deny that the shooting was anything more than self-defense. He filed an appeal, arguing in part, that he should have had access to Tom Lyon’s medical records — something he believed would help prove that he had reason to fear for his life.
Rodney Heemstra: There was no reason for a man to die there that day. And it wasn’t my fault, as far as– as far as I was protecting myself. And Tom would still be alive today if he hadn’t come at me.
John Larson: Did you ever apologize to the Lyon family?
Rodney Heemstra: For?
John Larson: Killing Tom.
Rodney Heemstra: You know, I’m sorry that his mental illness devastated their family and my family and the community.
John Larson: Rodney, do you own any of this?
Rodney Heemstra: I beg your pardon?
John Larson: I mean, do you own any of this? You had some role in it here.
Rodney Heemstra: I– I guess–
John Larson: Did you–
Rodney Heemstra: –I guess I must have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Rod Heemstra sat in prison for three years awaiting word on his appeal, when last summer came the stunning news.
His conviction was overturned. The Iowa Supreme Court agreed with Heemstra, ruling in part that Heemstra should have been given access to Lyon’s medical records and ordered Heemstra get a new trial.
Eight months later, in another divided courtroom, Heemstra once again faced a jury.
The prosecution presented the same exact case.
(Police interrogation video)
Heemstra: I shot a defenseless man.
Detective: Where at in the body did you shoot him?
Heemstra: In the head.
Prosecutor Hammerand: That’s the case ladies and gentleman. The defendant shot a defenseless man.
But this time, the defense had more leeway in attacking Tom Lyon’s mental condition.
During Ronda’s cross-examination, they used her husband’s medical records — the one’s they couldn’t use in the first trial — to show that Tom Lyon admitted to his doctors that he had a temper like a volcano and could go ballistic at times.
Defense attorney: Did he ever discuss with you the intermittent explosive disorder that he was diagnosed with?
Ronda Lyon: I don’t recall if he used those words. He came home and he said, “She’s given me an exercise to use so that when I feel like I’m going to get mad about something the exercise to use and go through to help make me relax so that I don’t do that.”
The new defense team also called upon a psychologist who testified that there was an explanation for Heemstra’s callous actions after the shooting.
Dr. Semone: He was in an acute disassociate state at this time.
Defense attorney: What does that mean?
Dr. Semone: That means he was somewhere else. He wasn’t playing with a fully integrated deck. Had he been able to play with a fully integrated deck, he’d a not done it.
(Verdict read in court)
Form of verdict number 3, we find the defendant guilty of voluntary manslaughter, signed by the foreman of this jury.
The jury believed Heemstra’s story and this time convicted him of a much lesser crime. Heemstra was sentenced to 10 years in prison, the maximum. But with credit for good behavior on top of the time he’s already served, Rod Heemstra could walk out of prison within 14 months.
It is a bitter ending for the Lyon family.
Ronda Lyon: No. I’m not satisfied. I don’t know how you can murder someone, change the story 20 times and come out with 10 years and it’s cut in half.
Since the killing four and a half years ago, the small Iowa town has been slow to heal. Routine has returned: the soil turned over, state fairs passed, growing seasons come and gone. All painful reminders of the good times Ronda Lyon once had with a man fondly remembered as the “Mayor of Motor.”
Ronda Lyon: What I wouldn’t give to be able to take supper to him. I can’t ever get that back. But at least I do have the memories, and so do my kids.
Ronda Lyon is no longer operating the farm. She’s sold her husband’s equipment because there’s no one in her family to farm the land. She also filed a wrongful death suit against Rodney Heemstra and last year a judge awarded her more than $11 million. Heemstra is appealing that decision and Ronda Lyon has yet to collect any of that money.
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