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Lyons, not wife, sought divorce

The preacher, who is serving a 5 1/2-year prison sentence, says he wants to "free her from the pain ... I have caused.''

By WAVENEY ANN MOORE

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2001


The preacher, who is serving a 5 1/2-year prison sentence, says he wants to "free her from the pain ... I have caused."

ST. PETERSBURG -- Her husband wants a divorce, but Deborah Lyons does not, her attorney said this week.

"She did not want it, and had not sought it," Ky Koch said from his office in Clearwater.

Mrs. Lyons' husband, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, is the former president of the National Baptist Convention USA and St. Petersburg minister. He expects to get out of prison in 2004.

Tuesday, in a statement released by one of his attorneys, Lyons said he felt compelled to explain his reasons for ending his marriage of nearly three decades.

"I have not seen my wife since March 31, 1999," Lyons said in a statement from Polk Correctional Institution, where he is serving a 51/2-year sentence for racketeering and grand theft. "I see no reason to prolong any more anxiety and waiting. I feel obligated to free her from the pain and mess I have caused."

The former minister of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church filed for divorce in Polk County on March 2. In the petition, Lyons claims to have no assets but $7.8-million in debts, including a lien and restitution payments.

Other than saying that Mrs. Lyons did not want a divorce, her attorney did not elaborate on what she had hoped would happen. Mrs. Lyons did not respond to repeated calls for comment.

She now works as a supervisor for a federally funded Workforce Investment Act job training program in Pinellas County and earns $32,510 a year.

Koch, her attorney, said his firm agreed to take her case at a reduced fee, and he added, "I've always admired the way she has stuck by her husband through the problems. And she's a heck of a nice lady."

He doubts the minister is destitute. "To say that he has nothing is not exactly correct. There are some assets, admittedly minimal, that he's got and that we will be entitled to," Koch said.

Larry D. Hardaway, a Lyons' attorney, responded: "We have no hesitation to dividing those assets if there are any. ... Dr. Lyons is willing to give her all of it. He doesn't want anything from the marriage. He thinks that his wife should get all of it in order to take care of her life."

He added: "It is our belief that Mrs. Lyons is already in possession of many of the assets and has liquidated much of what they owned together. Just recently, she made a request to sell a piece of land that they both owned and Dr. Lyons freely gave her permission and power of attorney to do whatever she wanted to do with it. My understanding is that she sold it."

Problems in the Lyons marriage became public in July 1997, when Mrs. Lyons was arrested for setting fire to a $700,000 waterfront Tierra Verde home that her husband had purchased with another woman, Bernice Edwards. Lyons, then president of the nation's largest black church organization, said at the time that the house was for convention business.

The arson, which caused about $30,000 in damage, launched a two-year investigation into Lyons and his financial dealings using the convention's name. He was convicted in 1999.

Mrs. Lyons, who police said had been in an intoxicated rage when she set fire to the four-bedroom house, pleaded guilty to arson and received five years of probation.

In August 2000, after successfully completing the terms of probation, she was granted an early end to her sentence.

In his statement, Lyons said his eye is on leaving prison, and, among other endeavors, working to "promote the sanctity of marriage, and to promote the value of a wholesome family experience."

Statement of Henry J. Lyons

The Rev. Henry J. Lyons wrote this text out by hand, gave it to his attorney, who had it typed and faxed to the St. Petersburg Times Tuesday.

I have come to believe that it is of interest to those who still care for me and recognize the frailness of man and to those who feel otherwise, that I answer this question of why I now seek to be legally separated from my wife. It is likewise important that I offer a word of my spirit to those who care.

Starting before the trials and continuing during my prison stay, I struggle and I anguish with the pain I have caused to so many victims. To ease my pain, I no longer pray for myself, but for all the victims. That is the only solace I get. It is my daily routine. I seek their forgiveness.

I must remain in confinement through 2004. I have not seen my wife since March 31, 1999. I see no reason to prolong any more anxiety and waiting. I feel obligated to free her from the pain and mess I have caused. I do not wish to hurt anybody else.

My eye is on leaving prison one day and to work to encourage the steadfastness of those called to minister, to promote the sanctity of marriage, and to promote the value of a wholesome family experience. I am a preacher here in prison and I will be a preacher when I am freed.

Henry J. Lyons

April 10, 2001

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