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One tough cookie, straight to the end

By MARY JO MELONE

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 1999


You've got to admire Bernice Edwards.

Sure, she embezzled thousands from a school for troubled kids with a previous boyfriend. Sure, she may have helped Henry Lyons swindle hundreds of thousands from a couple of huge corporations. And yes, she probably raided the wallets and made a run on the trust of devout black Baptists from one end of the country to the other. You've still got to give her credit for what helped make it all possible.

The lady's got moxie.

Mucho moxie.

Prosecutor Bill Loughery had battered her under cross examination Friday, but all he managed to do was make her feistier Monday.

Did there come a time, after the fire at their waterfront house in Tierra Verde, Loughery asked, that she "knew Dr. Lyons was in hot water?"

"I don't know the temperature of the water Dr. Lyons could have been experiencing," she said.

Loughery couldn't resist. "'Didn't you all have a hot tub?"

"'Yes," she said.

Her look helped. Edwards returned to court in the same monochromatic outfit -- a suit the color of a pale, pale buttercup with matching shoes, hose and handbag -- and the same upswept hairstyle that she'd worn Friday. Perfectly even bangs skimmed her forehead. Her face was broad, her skin almost too smooth, and her head was high, always high.

But mostly it was the voice, throaty and well-modulated, that knocked you out. It was a martini voice, an expense account voice, the kind you'd hear in corridors of a bank run forever by old men.

The voice was extraordinary, when you knew it came from a Mississippi high school dropout who ended up a bankrupt single mother in Milwaukee. Suddenly, you knew why she was able to persuade executives of billion-dollar companies she could deliver. It was a voice packed with authority that held, crazily, even when speaking absurdities. Loughery showed a list of the $1.5-million that she got, and spent, in a year in the name of church business. There were thousands for designer clothes and diamonds, and when Loughery wondered why, her answer was brisk and blunt:

"It was my money, and I worked for it."

Because her embezzlement conviction barred her from having a checking account, Edwards paid bills with cashiers checks that couldn't necessarily be traced back to her. She had an answer for that, too.

"It was just my way of doing business."

And when Loughery pointed out that her probation banned precisely this sort of conduct, she shot back:

"Am I on trial for violating probation, is that what you're saying?"

At every turn, she portrayed herself as the person who'd been wronged. She complained that the victims of her scams still owed her money.

Across the room, Henry Lyons sat, ignoring his attorneys. He looked plainly spent and small, not at all the larger, dignified figure who once declared he had been attacked because he was successful and black.

Deborah Lyons, who burned the waterfront house in a fit of drunken jealousy and yet has stood by her husband ever since, has been oddly absent from the courtroom the last couple of days. She left soon after Bernice Edwards began her defiant testimony.

The jurors heard Edwards deny being Henry Lyons' lover. They know the house burned.

But they were never told of the soap opera beginnings to this case, and how Mrs. Lyons set in motion her husband's downfall. Although it probably doesn't matter now, they were never told who set the fire, and why.

Bank records don't lie. If the last word in this case is guilty, Bernice Edwards will probably go into a kind of shock. In her heart, she'll still believe it was her money, that she could spend as she pleased.

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