In less than a month after her release from federal custody, Bernice Edwards was back to her old tricks, officials say.
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 15, 2002
They took in Bernice V. Edwards with open arms. It did not matter to her new minister, or to his congregation, that she was the convicted cohort of the Rev. Henry J. Lyons.
One man loaned Edwards $3,700. Another took in her 14-year-old son last summer so he could be near his mother while she finished serving a federal sentence at a halfway house in Akron, Ohio.
"I was hoping she was finally rehabilitated," said Leonard T. King, her Baptist minister. "If she used her mind and wisdom in a positive way, she could really be a great person. But I guess she just couldn't wait to get back to the lifestyle she loved."
Edwards, 45, one-time aide to Lyons and former publicist for his National Baptist Convention USA, is accused by her federal probation officers of violating her probation six times last year.
In documents filed this month, Edwards is accused of posing as the minister of King's church to buy $6,000 in furniture for an apartment she fraudulently leased in King's name, among other things.
Edwards, now a Wisconsin resident, is scheduled to appear in Tampa federal court on June 5 before U.S. Magistrate Elizabeth A. Jenkins and faces up to 30 months in prison. Federal officials recommend that her probation be revoked.
It remains unclear whether Edwards is in jail. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons said she is held in Wisconsin, but Tampa officials say she is free pending next month's hearing.
Edwards' attorney did not return calls for comment.
In March 1999, Edwards pleaded guilty to two tax evasion charges for failing to report more than $500,000 in income from the National Baptist Convention USA from 1995 and 1996. She was sentenced to 21 months in prison.
Edwards served 13 months in a federal prison in Indiana before moving to a halfway house in Akron. She spent five months there and started working at a job-training program operated by King's Elizabeth Baptist Church.
On July 28, with three months for good behavior, Edwards was released from federal custody to begin serving three years' probation. In less than a month, federal officials say, she began misbehaving.
A petition filed by Edwards' probation officer offered this account of her problems:
First, she failed to timely pay $120 a month in restitution for back taxes. Then on Aug. 16, she borrowed $3,700 from a business owner in Akron, saying she needed the cash for her daughter's education.
Her probation forbade Edwards from soliciting any loan or line of credit.
On Sept. 1, she is accused of forging King's name on a letter to an apartment complex as a means to get an apartment there. Then she made "false statements" by filling out a lease in King's name without his permission.
A month later, Edwards visited a furniture store in Cleveland, posing as a minister at King's church, to buy $6,000 in furniture. The purchase, never completed, did not have her probation officer's required approval.
And finally, Edwards failed to document how she received $2,510 late in 2001.
Cindy Martinez, credit manager of Elgin Furniture and Appliance in Cleveland, said in an interview that Edwards told the store she planned to buy the furniture using a check from her church. But she said Edwards, who identified herself as Bree Jones, never returned to pay or collect the furnishings.
Bree Jones was one of several aliases that Edwards used in NBC schemes created with Lyons, state prosecutors say.
King said he learned of the attempted purchase when the store called his church. He contacted her probation officer.
"Obviously, we had to report her and that kind of ended her career here," he said.
King said Edwards was paid $6 an hour as a clerical worker for several months beginning in March 2001. He said she was a good worker and was boastful about her possessions.
He said she told parishioners and others in the jobs program that the government had given back to her the $700,000 Tierra Verde home she and Lyons bought together and once shared, in addition to cars, jewelry and clothing.
"She said she got everything back," King said. "She said the government was just waiting for her to come down and get it."
People, he said, believed her. "She was a good talker," King said. "She can convince people of a lot of things."
One day, King said, he sat down with Edwards at a computer and surfed the Internet to find a Florida prison mug shot of Lyons, who was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison in 1999.
"She saw he had lost a lot of weight," he said. "And it made her unhappy. She seemed kind of sad he was still locked up."
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett and staff writer Graham Brink contributed to this report.
Accomplice in Lyons case is released, July 28, 2001
Edwards sentenced to prison in tax evasion, Oct. 26, 1999
Lyons saga leads to prison