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Edwards in town, booked, released
By MIKE WILSON, CRAIG PITTMAN,
©St. Petersburg Times, published February 28, 1998
LARGO -- A white GMC truck pulled up to the front entrance of Callahan Bail Bonds on Friday afternoon. A door to the building swung open.
A dozen news people surrounded the vehicle, sensing an end to their three-hour stakeout: At last they would get a clear picture of Bernice Vernell Edwards.
As photographers watched the truck, she bolted from an unwatched side door, ducked into a red Chevy Blazer and disappeared.
Edwards, 41, sat still for at least one picture Friday -- her booking photo at Pinellas County Jail, where she turned herself in about 12:30 p.m. She smiled for the camera. She had been arrested at her Milwaukee home Wednesday night on charges that she joined with the Rev. Henry J. Lyons to turn the National Baptist Convention USA into a criminal racket.
But the clearest picture of Edwards can be found in an 82-page arrest affidavit filed by an investigator for Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe.
The document describes Edwards as a human chameleon who readily changed herself into whatever she thought people wanted her to be. To corporations thinking of giving her millions, she portrayed herself as a media mogul with heavy influence in the black community. To a kindly friend considering giving her a loan, she played the role of the poor but determined single mother.
Either way, she got the money, the affidavit says. Edwards once bought herself a $125,000 diamond ring -- but turned around and told a sob story so a friend would give her cash for living expenses.
The affidavit places Edwards directly beside Lyons in a team effort to defraud corporations of millions of dollars. They shared five bank accounts, a house and a car, and were both deeply involved in several business deals that make up the heart of the racketeering charge, the affidavit says.
Edwards -- a convicted embezzler who has used a long list of aliases and Social Security numbers -- boarded a plane bound for Tampa about 6 a.m. Friday and returned to Milwaukee 11 hours later.
In between, she demonstrated her ability to get help from unlikely sources and showed why she has earned a reputation for elusiveness.
Edwards spent most of the Northwest Airlines flight from Milwaukee to St. Petersburg sleeping, a blanket tucked under her chin. When approached by a Times reporter, she said, "I have nothing to say to you" and turned her face toward the window.
On arrival at Tampa International Airport, Edwards was the first passenger off the plane. She emerged from the plane, sunglasses on, and slipped into a marked airport police car that was waiting on the tarmac. A second car shuttled her across Tampa Bay.
Edwards' car was met by a throng of news people when it pulled into the jail booking area. She kept her head down as she took the two or three steps from the car to the building. She was photographed and released on $50,000 bail.
Edwards was under no obligation to stay in Florida after her booking. Prosecutors only seek special restrictions if they believe a defendant might flee.
Edwards and Lyons are set to be arraigned on March 16. The case was initially assigned to Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Raymond Gross, but he said in a memo that presiding over the complicated matter "will wreak havoc upon the orderly handling" of the rest of his caseload.
The case was reassigned to someone who knows her way around both the Bible and the balance sheet: Pinellas-Pasco Chief Judge Susan Schaeffer, 55.
When Schaeffer was in college she sang in a gospel trio. Before she went to law school, she was an Internal Revenue Service agent in Jacksonville. Schaeffer recently was a nominee for the Florida Supreme Court.
She has presided over many of Pinellas' high-profile criminal trials. She sentenced Oba Chandler to die for a gruesome triple-murder and did the same for serial killer James Randall.
At the jail Friday, Edwards finished the booking process in 15 minutes, slightly less time than it took Lyons two days earlier. Sheriff's deputies shielded her from view until she disappeared into a car.
It has long been difficult to discern the true nature of Bernice Edwards. Over the years, she used different personas depending on where she was and who she was with.
In Milwaukee, she was known as "Bree Jones," the down-on-her-luck mother of Jessica, Jesse and Joshua.
She could barely hold on to her $50,000 Milwaukee home because she was struggling so to pay the real estate tax, city officials thought.
She had income of less than $3,000 one year, her federal probation officer in Milwaukee was led to believe.
She was so short of funds that she asked an elderly friend to help her pay for fuel to heat her house, recalled 90-year-old Max Lehninger.
Over the past decade, the Wisconsin man loaned Edwards about $100,000. He gave her children lunch money. He offered them rides to school because he thought Edwards had no car. He helped pay taxes she owed. He still is owed about $40,000.
"I thought she was a good mother and I wanted to help her," Lehninger said Friday. "She was a phony and I was a damn fool."
Lehninger, who just got out of a Milwaukee hospital, said he received a call from Edwards last Sunday. She wanted to know how he was feeling after gallbladder surgery. "I was afraid she was going to ask me for money."
In Florida, meanwhile, where Lyons appointed her the NBC's public relations director for corporate affairs, there was another Edwards. Her employment contract set her salary at $40,000, but to corporate executives, Edwards portrayed herself as rich, educated and influential on a national scale.
She was so rich, Edwards told one insurance executive, that she chose to work for the NBC for free. Edwards "went on at length about how wealthy and important she was, and that she volunteered to work with Reverend Lyons because she was so wealthy," insurance executive George Burke recalled.
She had "several" advanced degrees from Columbia University, the Ivy League school in New York City, she told Burke.
An executive at a funeral home conglomerate thought Edwards owned hundreds of radio stations, television stations and newspapers. Another vice president recalled her saying she and her husband owned 208 radio stations aimed at black audiences.
In truth, Edwards dropped out of a Mississippi high school before graduating. Officials at Columbia have no record of her.
She owned no media outlets. She has described herself in court records as never married. The brother of her children's father does own several media outlets in Milwaukee, but Edwards has no involvement with them. "There aren't even near 200 black radio stations in this country," said Jerrel Jones, the brother.
According to the affidavit, Edwards was adroit in using her high-power persona to con the convention's corporate partners into paying huge sums to her and Lyons. She projected an image of wealth and power. The affidavit details her appetite for jewelry and clothes. Since 1994, she bought $262,000 worth of jewelry. She spent $60,000 on designer clothes at a Milwaukee boutique -- in one year.
In late 1995, one corporate partner, a Canadian funeral company called The Loewen Group, lost a $500-million verdict in Mississippi. Edwards and Lyons, citing their connections and influence in Mississippi, said they could help get a reversal of the verdict, the affidavit states. They would need $2-million from Loewen to investigate possible jury tampering by a rival funeral company.
When Loewen abruptly settled the lawsuit, Edwards was furious, Loewen executives recalled. She already had "fronted" $2-million from her "personal account" to hire lawyers and investigators, she claimed.
Loewen officials believed her story and paid $500,000.
The affidavit also alleges that Edwards helped Lyons extort another $500,000 from the Loewen Group. Edwards "badgered" Loewen officials for the rest of the $2-million she had "fronted" to the NBC.
At the time, she was on probation for embezzling from a Milwaukee school. Her probation barred her from opening new accounts.
One serious allegation against her in the affidavit is that Edwards set up a secret bank account in Wisconsin. It "was nothing more than a "hidden' personal bank account used to "launder' the funds obtained from The Loewen Group," the affidavit says.
The account was held at the Guaranty Bank in Milwaukee under the name J.H. Associates. It was opened in August 1995 by a friend, diner owner Josephine Hicks. But according to bank officials, "Josephine Hicks had little or nothing to do with the account."
All deposits were made by Edwards, the bank officials said. She also made most of the withdrawals -- either in cash, by wire transfer or by purchasing cashiers' checks.
According to the affidavit, Edwards told bank officials "the J.H. account was not to be an interest-bearing account" even though its total deposits were $1,524,737. An interest bearing account would have generated an IRS form 1099 from the bank, which would have tipped probation officials to the money.
Bank records show that hundreds of thousands of dollars flowed back and forth between the secret J.H. Associates account and the Baptist Builder Fund, a secret convention account Lyons opened in St. Petersburg. The two accounts are at the crux of the racketeering allegations against Lyons and Edwards. They provided a hiding place for millions of dollars investigators say Lyons and Edwards skimmed from corporate marketing deals.
But Edwards role in racketeering went deeper, the affidavit said.
Prosecutors allege that Edwards actively helped Lyons extort another $500,000 from The Loewen Group. Edwards "badgered" Loewen officials for the rest of the $2-million she had "fronted" to the NBC.
A Loewen official recalled one phone call: Edwards said she and Lyons were calling from the White House and that they had just come from a meeting with the Congressional Black Caucus. Then she put Lyons on the phone. According to the Loewen executive, Lyons said that if Loewen didn't pay up, he would denounce the company on "the steps of the Capitol."
The executive recalled Lyons' words: "What I think of Loewen depends on whether I get my money."
Now that Edwards faces a possible prison sentence, a question remains: Will she cooperate with prosecutors on the charges against Lyons, the central target in the racketeering case?
Pinellas authorities did not question Edwards during her brief trip to jail Friday.
In 1993, Edwards was executive director of a Milwaukee school for at-risk high school students. Arthur Reid, a funeral home operator who also was Edwards' boyfriend, was chairman. Reid says his name was just on the school's paperwork; Edwards actually created and ran the place, he says.
Both of them were charged with embezzling $60,000 from the tax-supported school.
Edwards blamed Reid. She agreed to testify against him.
Reid received a year of prison time. Edwards got probation, as her attorney pledged that Edwards had learned a "gigantic lesson" for the life ahead of her.
Reid, now behind bars on an unrelated cocaine charge, called home from his Illinois prison cell this week. His daughters told him Bernice Edwards had been arrested.
"He is really in glory," Sheila Reid said of her father's reaction.
"He feels sorry for the convention and he feels sorry for Dr. Lyons," she said. Edwards "is a con artist and she's a talker. She's gonna flip. She's gonna put it all on him."
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