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Ex-Lyons aide tells of rising doubts

The woman, who says she was the minister's lover, says she came to see him as ""anti-Christian.''


© St. Petersburg Times, published January 29, 1999

Bonita Henderson testifies Thursday morning about her relationship with the Rev. Henry J. Lyons. [Times photo: Brian Baer]
LARGO -- Bonita Henderson described herself as the hard-working aide who was closer than anyone to the Rev. Henry J. Lyons during his campaign for president of the National Baptist Convention USA.

She was also his lover, she said.

But Henderson testified Thursday in Lyons' racketeering and grand theft trial that after five years, she began to doubt the St. Petersburg minister; the charitable preacher who paid the rent on her Tampa apartment, she said, was no longer a good Christian.

"I could no longer tolerate his erratic, unprofessional, anti-Christian behavior," said Henderson, who told prosecutors she still has Lyons' shirts, robe and slippers at her home.

In three hours of testimony, Henderson recounted her work with Lyons and the last task she performed for him: the creation of a phony list of convention members that Lyons sold to an insurance company for $400,000.

Lyons and former aide Bernice Edwards are both charged with racketeering over allegations they swindled millions of dollars from corporations by using the good name of the convention.

It was Edwards, Henderson said, who told her during Lyons' election campaign just how valuable a victory would be.

"She said we were going to make a lot of money," Henderson said. "I asked who was "we.' She said, "You, me and Dr. Lyons.' " Lyons won the convention presidency in September 1994.

Henderson said she worried about Lyons' chances for victory when, during a Baptist convention meeting, Edwards told pastors that she and Lyons would marry once "he got rid of his drunk wife."

Edwards' attorney, Paul Sisco, suggested Henderson was a romantic rival, asking her if she herself wanted to marry Lyons.

"I've been married twice," Henderson replied. "That's more than enough marriage."

Lyons showed no emotion as Henderson testified. Behind him in a Pinellas County courtroom, his wife, Deborah Lyons, read a Bible with family friends on both sides.

More than 100 people, the biggest crowd of the trial, packed the courtroom to watch Henderson's much-anticipated testimony.

For much of the Lyons saga, Henderson has been the mystery woman, sought by investigators and reporters alike. She disappeared in 1995 after Lyons paid her $150,000 from a secret bank account, and she spent time in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and finally Kansas City, according to her deposition.

Investigators suspected the payment was "hush money." Late last year, Henderson, 43, surrendered to federal authorities who wanted to question her about Lyons.

Though she is not charged with any crime, Assistant State Attorney Bill Loughery said, "Bonita Henderson is essentially part of this racketeering organization."

Henderson said Lyons paid her the money for her work creating the phony membership list. She admitted to defense lawyers that she has not paid income taxes on the $150,000.

A Ministry in Question: more Times coverage of the Rev. Henry Lyons

Henderson said her skills with a computer led Lyons to ask her in 1995 to create a phony list of the convention's supposed 8.5-million members. Lyons and the Globe Accident and Life Insurance Co. of Oklahoma City had entered into an agreement to market life insurance to black Baptists.

The problem was, Henderson said, the only known list of convention members contained no more than 15,000 names.

One day, Lyons saw Henderson using a $90 computer program to look up a phone number. The program, available at any software store, is essentially a national phone book with 100-million names, addresses and phone numbers.

"He was just kind of fascinated by it," she said.

Lyons asked her if she could create the bogus list of members using the program, and she agreed.

Lyons gave her a list of cities with large populations of blacks or Baptists. He told her to pick black-sounding names, she said. She targeted ZIP codes where she knew large numbers of black Baptists lived.

"I eliminated all z's because there aren't too many black people whose names start with z," said Henderson, who also tried to eliminate names ending with "ski."

The only Baptists who ended up on the list got there purely by coincidence, she said.

A vice president for the company testified Thursday that a direct mailing using the list proved a disaster and generated complaints from many non-Baptists, including an imperial wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

"It was apparent to me we did not receive what we were told we had received," said Globe vice president Robert Richey.

Lyons blamed Henderson, saying she had sabotaged the list because she was loyal to the previous convention president, Richey said.

He promised a second list, which was later delivered. It, too, contained many non-Baptists, though Globe did receive some revenue after a direct mailing using it. Lyons eventually admitted there was no real list of convention members, Richey said.

Globe paid him an additional $600,000 to compile one, which he has not done.

Defense attorneys maintain the convention does have 8.5-million members. Lawyer Denis de Vlaming, standing besides Lyons after court ended, said: "The number is an estimate but is verifiable. Right, doc?"

Said Dr. Lyons, "Yes."


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