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Mrs. Lyons' ordeal ends quietly

Deborah Lyons, wife of the fallen minister, is released early from her probation for setting fire to a Tierra Verde home.

By WILLIAM R. LEVESQUE

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 25, 2000


LARGO -- Deborah Lyons expected a sea of media cameras on Thursday as a friend drove her to the courthouse. Upon her arrival, just one greeted her. The usual crowd of reporters was missing, too.

It was then, Mrs. Lyons said, that she realized her long legal ordeal was really finished.

"God has been good and gracious to me," said the wife of fallen Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons. "Finally, it's over, isn't it?"

For her, it is.

Without fanfare or attention, a Pinellas circuit judge ordered an early end to the five years' probation Mrs. Lyons received for setting fire in 1997 to the $700,000 Tierra Verde home her husband bought with another woman.

Mrs. Lyons, 52, who still had just over two years of probation to complete, smiled broadly as the judge made his decision. She clasped the hands of three friends sitting with her in court.

Afterward, she hugged them all, and then she hugged her attorney, Paul Meissner. In the elevator ride to the courthouse lobby, she wiped tears from her eyes.

"Hallelujah," Mrs. Lyons said softly to herself. "This long, terrible journey is over."

The journey for her and her husband began July 6, 1997.

That's the day she set fire to the Tierra Verde home after discovering that her husband had purchased it with another woman, Bernice Edwards.

That arson set in motion two years of revelations about her husband, then president of the National Baptist Convention USA, and his financial dealings using the convention's name.

Today, the Rev. Lyons, 58, a St. Petersburg minister, is serving a 51/2-year prison sentence on racketeering and grand theft charges. The "other woman" behind the Tierra Verde house, Bernice Edwards, is serving a 21-month federal sentence on tax evasion charges.

A second woman, Brenda Harris, the Nashville woman prosecutors called the Rev. Lyons' "paramour," is serving an 18-month federal probation sentence for misinforming lenders about the source of money Lyons gave her to buy a home in Tennessee.

Mrs. Lyons was in a jealous, intoxicated rage when she set fire to the waterfront Tierra Verde home Lyons had purchased with Edwards, police reports said.

She told police that she had followed her husband there one night after discovering a deed to the house in his briefcase. Later, she returned, swiping her husband's spare keys and wandering alone in the four-bedroom, 10,000-square-foot home.

She lost control and set the fire, she told police, after she found her husband's clothes in closets.

Lyons initially explained that the house was the national guest house for the convention, and also described it as one of Edwards' investment properties.

The fire caused about $30,000 damage.

When Mrs. Lyons pleaded guilty to the arson charge on Oct. 20, 1997, and received the probation sentence, tears flowed from her eyes as a courtroom filled with reporters watched.

After 34 months of that probation sentence had passed, Mrs. Lyons asked the judge on Thursday to end it early, something any probationer can ask a judge to do.

Mrs. Lyons had successfully completed all the terms of her probation -- the 200 hours of community service, abstaining from alcohol, a psychological evaluation, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.

Normally, defendants can't ask a judge for an early end to their probation until at least half of the sentence has passed.

Mrs. Lyons waited four months longer than was legally necessary.

"We did that out of an abundance of caution," said her attorney, Meissner.

"She has complied with every single demand made of her. I don't think she has been anything but a model probationer," Meissner told Judge Douglas Baird. "I hope you can terminate her probation and allow her to get on with the next chapter of her life."

Baird, saying reports indicated Mrs. Lyons had been an "exemplary probationer," granted the request without comment.

And so, it was over.

Mrs. Lyons, who now lives in Largo, works in St. Petersburg as a lead career counselor for PinellasWorks!, a welfare reform initiative. She said she works with those seeking retraining for jobs, especially ex-offenders.

Mrs. Lyons will have to wait and see if she will now be able to see her husband.

She has not seen Rev. Lyons since he was sent to prison in March 1999. After she pleaded guilty to the arson, the crime disqualified her for visitation rights.

While state prison officials say she can reapply to see him now that her probation is over, she still may not be granted visitation, state prison officials say.

For the time being, Mrs. Lyons said she is simply thankful her ordeal is done. "It was a storm that God had to bring me through to get me where I am today," she said.

The past three years "really did seem like forever," she said. "I just knew if I kept my focus on the Lord, I'd reach this day. The Lord helped me keep my sanity through all of this."

Just a month ago, the Tierra Verde home was finally foreclosed by World Savings and Loan Association, two years after it was initiated.

Nobody had lived in the home since the fire that Mrs. Lyons started.

Meissner said, "It's all old news now."

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