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  • Church check helped buy diamond


    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 8, 1997

    ST. PETERSBURG -- Money from the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. helped buy a 5.56-carat diamond ring for Bernice V. Edwards, according to records from a St. Petersburg jewelry store.

    A check for $10,000 from a convention bank account was used as a down payment on the $36,200 ring, according to the store's sales memorandum and a bank deposit slip.

    The check was drawn on the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., Baptist Builder Fund, a fund that the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, convention president, maintains in St. Petersburg.

    The round-cut diamond in a six-prong, yellow gold setting was purchased last year from John and Judy Grim, owners of Judith's Gems Inc. on Central Avenue.

    The Grims said Edwards and Lyons had shopped there together several times during the previous year, picking out several items. The Grims had grown friendly with Edwards and Lyons and understood them to be married -- or at least, engaged to be married.

    They were surprised, when Edwards selected the ring on Feb. 11, 1996, and paid for it with a check from the nation's largest black church group.

    "When we saw the check, we looked at it funny and my wife and I looked at each other," recalled John Grim, whose wife has operated Judith's Gems since he retired from the business, which was known for decades as Haypennie Jewelers. "Then we just dropped it.

    "We didn't know, but what I hate is if we're seeing anyone taking from poor people -- poor people who could have been giving the church all that they had."

    Edwards, a convicted embezzler from Milwaukee, and her Orlando attorney did not return phone calls Thursday.

    Lyons could not be reached for comment. Since his wife started a fire at a $700,000 Tierra Verde home he owns with Edwards, Lyons has denied having an affair with Edwards. He has said he had a business relationship with Edwards, who was a public relations director for the National Baptist Convention.

    The Baptist Builder Fund has become a source of scrutiny for the embattled Lyons. The fund is not listed in the organization's most recent annual report or audit. Half a dozen convention leaders said they had never heard of the fund until the recent controversy.

    Prosecutors have subpoenaed the United Bank and Trust Co. to turn over its records of the Baptist Builder Fund, though Lyons' attorneys have attempted to quash those requests.

    On Thursday, a prosecutor said the claim that convention funds were used to buy a diamond would have to be examined more closely.

    "The legality of it depends on whether the organization had given the authority to spend the money in that fashion," said Bruce Bartlett, chief assistant state attorney.

    In an interview with the Times last week, Lyons' attorney said Lyons has wide discretion over convention spending.

    "Any monies that were used from that (Baptist Builder) fund were consistent with the discretionary spending purposes of the convention's president," Grady Irvin said.

    He said the Baptist Builder Fund was used for a variety of purposes, including paying off convention debts, paying for travel expenses, paying "minor salaries" and paying contractors hired for special projects.

    He did not mention personal items, such as jewelry.

    Late Thursday, Irvin would not comment on Baptist Builder Fund money used to help pay for the diamond ring.

    "I have no comment regarding anything dealing with Dr. Lyons or the National Baptist Convention."

    Edwards and Lyons first came to Judith's Gems one Saturday afternoon in 1995, John Grim said. The couple said they had been dining at the Kopper Kitchen next door when they stopped in. That day, they picked out a $2,000, custom-designed gold money clip for him, Grim said.

    Over the next few months, they were back. Sometimes together. More often, Edwards, 40, came alone. They picked out cuff links embedded with a half-carat diamond in each. She picked another ring and pendant. She ordered rare black opals, but never bought them.

    Edwards befriended Judy Grim, inviting her to lunches, to exercise, to chat. Edwards seemed poised, educated and rich. When Edwards said she worked at the "NBC," Grim thought she meant the television network. Edwards, she said, didn't correct her misunderstanding of the initials.

    At one point, Judy Grim said, she and Edwards were planning a trip together to Africa.

    "She needed a friend," Judy Grim said, "and it was going that direction. I talked to her every week or two from wherever she was all over the world. She liked to call from airplanes."

    Lyons, the Grims thought at first, must be Edwards' husband. On 1995 sales slips, they would write: Bernice and Henry Lyons. Months later, Edwards showed up wearing another diamond ring -- one she described as an engagement ring. "So then we thought they must be engaged," Judy Grim said.

    The Grims did not learn of Deborah Lyons until they read about her in the newspaper last month.

    When Judy Grim visited Edwards at the Don CeSar Beach Resort, Edwards wanted her to try out the spa. Grim did not have a swimsuit. Edwards got her one, a leopard-skin pattern, from the resort's shops and charged it to "the Lyons room," Grim said.

    "They all knew her out there," Judy Grim said.

    George C. Fetherston, the hotel's general manager, said Thursday that he could not discuss Edwards. "We offer R and R and privacy," he said.

    In all, the Grims say Edwards and Lyons spent about $45,000 at their shop. Records show most of their payments were cash or cashier's checks.

    The purchase on Feb. 11, 1996, was different.

    That morning, John Grim carried four diamonds to Edwards' hotel room. She offered him an eggs Benedict breakfast from room service, then picked out the 5.56-carat diamond from the bunch.

    That afternoon, the Grims put the stone in its setting back at their shop. They returned to the Don CeSar that night to dine and hand over the ring. They waited in the lounge, but no one showed. They called Room 402. Edwards said Lyons was busy with church business, Judy Grim said.

    They waited some more, before walking upstairs to the room.

    There, Judy Grim said, Edwards came to the door and handed the jewelers the Baptist Builder Fund check and explained why they could not come inside the darkened room.

    "She said that Dr. Lyons was trying to get some sleep in there," Judy Grim said.

    The Grims said they could not recall whose signature was on the check. They did not keep a copy of it.

    They did keep a sales slip, describing the purchase and the check number and account -- The Baptist Builder Fund. They also kept their $10,000 deposit slip from a day after the sale, Feb. 12, to their bank. It read: "National Baptist Conv. USA Inc. H. Lyons. $10,000."

    "The first time I saw it," said Judy Grim, "I thought, this is not right. Not for church money."

    A spokesman for the Internal Revenue Service said Thursday all items of value -- money or gifts -- gained from a workplace must be reported on income tax returns.

    "Any private or individual benefit derived from a tax exempt organization would have to be reported," said spokesman Holger Euringer, who said he could not comment on any specific case.

    Two weeks after the first payment, the Grims recorded another payment on the diamond. It was $10,000 cashier's check from Guaranty Bank in Mayville, Wisc. The Grims say they had trouble getting the final payment. It was due by Feb 25. It arrived March 19, after they called and wrote Edwards repeatedly.

    It was a cashier's check for $16,200, their deposit slips show.

    Other checks written on the Baptist Builder Fund fund include one for $1,000 made payable to the Nashville City Club, where Lyons and another convention employee, Brenda Harris, had applied for membership.

    The only convention program with a name resembling the Baptist Builder Fund existed several years ago under Lyons' predecessor as president, the Rev. T.J. Jemison. In 1990, Jemison announced a plan to recruit 100,000 "Baptist Builders" to help pay off the mortgage on the organization's new headquarters, the $10-million World Center in Nashville.

    Members were asked to give $10 a month, and in return they received a pin identifying them as Baptist Builders.

    In 1994, Lyons replaced Jemison as president after a bitter election. The two men were archenemies, and Lyons had his own plans for raising money. The Baptist Builders program of the Jemison era was no more. All bank accounts maintained by Jemison's team were closed.

    It was not known Thursday how often the Baptist Builder Fund has been used to pay for Lyons' or Edwards' expenses.

    Some merchants recall Edwards using credit cards.

    She regularly ordered flowers -- usually a dozen roses sent up to her room -- at the Florist at the Don CeSar, said store owner Barbara Lane. Edwards usually charged the flowers to her room or a credit card, Lane said.

    Larry Crume, a floral designer who worked at the Don CeSar at the time and operates his own studio in St. Pete Beach, remembers Edwards as a special customer. She ordered silk orchid arrangements for Lyons's church to replace the old flowers there and she ordered flowers for the house in Tierra Verde.

    For Lyons' 55th birthday last January, Edwards ordered a large gourmet basket of fruits and snacks, fresh red roses and a silk arrangement of silk burgundy orchids to match the decor in his church office, Crume said.

    "Money was never discussed as to how much could be spent. It just had to be fabulous," Crume said.

    When Edwards made trips to the Central Avenue jewelry store, she often rode in the back of a taxi driven by Bud Cline, a 71-year-old commercial real estate broker from Michigan.

    He was driving cabs for BATS Taxi in St. Pete Beach last year when he first picked up Edwards at the Don CeSar. She began talking about a new house that she had just purchased in Tierra Verde. She said she needed somebody to help coordinate repairs and renovations there.

    Cline agreed to help. He arranged for the Jacuzzi's furnace to be fixed. He hired a landscaper, a plumber and an electrician. He also arranged for Honeywell to install a security system.

    Cline said he always thought Edwards and Lyons were a couple.

    "She led everybody to believe they were either married or boyfriend and girlfriend," Cline said. "I knew who he was. I knew he was a minister. I put two and two together right away."

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