The former publicist convicted in the Rev. Henry Lyons scandal is freed from federal custody.
By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 28, 2001
Bernice V. Edwards, whose friendship with the Rev. Henry J. Lyons took her to a misbegotten world of luxury, was released Friday from federal custody.
Edwards, 44, walked out of a federal halfway house in Akron, Ohio, at 9:20 a.m. after serving 18 months of a federal sentence for tax evasion.
Edwards once described herself as "a little kid in a candy store," as money from her days as a National Baptist Convention USA publicist brought her delights such as a $135,000 Mercedes, a 20-carat princess-cut diamond and a $700,000 Tierra Verde home she bought with Lyons, the NBC's former president.
Now, Edwards is looking for a fresh start away from her old haunts in Florida and Milwaukee, where she once was convicted of embezzling.
"She did her time," said Paul Sisco, her attorney on state charges. "Now she has an opportunity and the will to turn over a new leaf and get on with her life. She's a talented woman, and a very charismatic woman and a lot of people wish her all the best."
Edwards served the first 13 months of her sentence in an Illinois federal prison before moving to the halfway house on Feb. 28. She's not free of the federal government just yet.
First, Edwards must successfully complete three years of probation, which she is expected to do in northern Ohio, Sisco said.
Edwards' good behavior in custody lopped about three months off her original 21-month sentence.
Federal officials declined to say where she is living, and Edwards did not return messages relayed to her through Sisco.
Edwards' plans are unknown. Federal officials would not confirm what job she worked while at the halfway house, where she returned at the end of each day after working in the community.
For the time being, Sisco said, Edwards is expected to get back to family.
Edwards has four children, including Justice Edwards, who was born six weeks premature on Aug. 4, 1999, just three months before she was sentenced. Edwards pleaded guilty to tax evasion in March 1999 in a plea deal with federal prosecutors, who dropped 23 other charges.
"She puts family as a priority," said Sisco. "And it's my understanding they are all together now or will be shortly."
In February 1999, a state jury in Pinellas acquitted Edwards of racketeering while convicting Lyons of stealing millions from corporations, using the NBC name.
Lyons also was convicted of grand theft for pocketing money from the Anti-Defamation League, intended to rebuild Southern black churches.
Lyons, 59, is serving a 51/2-year term in a Polk County prison and, assuming he gets the maximum time off for good behavior, is about halfway through his sentence. He would be released in about November or December 2003.
Lyons has refused repeated interview requests by the St. Petersburg Times since his incarceration.
Brenda Harris, who prosecutors once called his "paramour," has completed an 18-month federal probation sentence for failing to report that the $340,000 downpayment on her Nashville, Tenn., home came from a slush fund Lyons controlled.
For Edwards, the probation could represent a new start. That last time she was on probation, things didn't go so well for her.
She was in Milwaukee serving out probation for an embezzling conviction unrelated to Lyons. She was convicted of stealing money from a school for at-risk kids.
But then she met Lyons and, Pinellas prosecutors say, unbeknownst to her probation officer, violated her probation again and again.
"She's a very intelligent woman," said attorney Denis de Vlaming, who represented Lyons. "I just hope she uses her intelligence in a lawful manner."
To see signs that the long Lyons' saga is now drawing to an inevitable close, look no further than the $700,000 Tierra Verde home where it all started.
Lyons' wife, Deborah, set fire to the home in July 1997, touching off an investigation that would lead to her husband's undoing. She completed probation on an arson charge earlier this year.
The home, which is now larger than before, has long since been sold. It has been completely gutted and rebuilt. Work is expected to be finished in September.
The seller's asking price: $1.9-million.
"I've never had a potential buyer ask about its history," said owner Tom Rogers. "It's old news."