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  • Deborah Lyons charged with arson

    By CRAIG PITTMAN and TIM ROCHE

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 9, 1997


    LARGO -- Prosecutors officially charged Deborah Lyons with arson Friday in last month's fire that damaged a $700,000 Tierra Verde house her husband owns with another woman.

    Although the Rev. Henry Lyons has said he did not want his wife prosecuted, Assistant State Attorney Frank Piazza said Lyons was not the only victim to be considered in the arson case.

    "We've got the lives of the firemen at stake and the lives and property of the neighbors at stake," he said.

    If convicted, Mrs. Lyons, 47, could face a minimum prison sentence of two years and 10 months and a maximum of four years and nine months, Piazza said. But a judge could find grounds to give her a much lighter sentence for a first offense, he said.

    Because she has been charged with a first-degree felony, Mrs. Lyons would not be eligible for a pre-trial intervention program, which would wipe her record clean in exchange for an admission of guilt and 12 to 18 months of good behavior. Only someone charged with a third-degree felony can enter the program.

    Mrs. Lyons will not have to show up in court for arraignment because she has already submitted a written plea of innocent. Defense attorney Paul Meissner's only comment was, "The State Attorney's Office has apparently completed its investigation, and now I get to do my job."

    Prosecutors are still considering whether to file another charge against Mrs. Lyons: burglary, for entering the Tierra Verde house.

    Piazza said no decision will be made on that charge until prosecutors speak with the co-owner of the home, convicted embezzler Bernice Edwards. Her attorneys have promised to bring her in in a few weeks. Neither Edwards nor her attorney responded to requests to comment.

    When prosecutors interviewed Lyons last week, the St. Petersburg minister told them his wife had permission to use a key and enter the Tierra Verde house, so there was no burglary.

    Piazza said Lyons, the president of the 8.5-million member National Baptist Convention USA, told them "he would prefer the whole case would be dropped. He didn't give us a why."

    One thing prosecutors want to ask Edwards is why, if Mrs. Lyons had permission to be in the house, Edwards had the locks changed after the fire.

    Meanwhile, the investigation of Lyons continued Friday as David Kurash, an economic crimes specialist with the State Attorney's Office, interviewed the owner of Judith's Gems, a store where Lyons and Edwards spent thousands of dollars on what appeared to be personal items.

    According to store receipts, they made a down payment on a 5.56-carat diamond ring using a check from the convention's Baptist Builder Fund, an account that does not appear in any convention financial statements.

    When Edwards visited Judith's Gems and other shops in Hyde Park and local malls, she often rode in a taxicab driven by Bud Cline, 71, working for BATS Taxi in St. Pete Beach.

    "She always had a purseful of $100 bills," Cline said. "She was living a lie. She wasn't what she wanted people to think she was."

    When Cline first met Edwards last year, he said, he picked her up at the Don CeSar Beach Resort and Spa for a trip to the airport and she began talking about a new house that she had bought in Tierra Verde.

    Cline said Edwards told him she needed somebody to coordinate repairs and renovations at the house, which Lyons has told reporters was purchased as a "national guest house" for the convention.

    Cline, a sometime commercial real estate broker, said he agreed to help. He hired a landscaper, plumber and electrician. He met with a planner to talk about turning a patio into an exercise room. He also arranged for Honeywell to install a security system.

    Cline said he always made sure the contractors were paid. He said Edwards either gave them cash or wrote checks on an account at Mercantile Bank that she shared with Lyons. 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."

    After a while, Cline said, he tired of Edwards' lies and they parted company. "She couldn't tell the truth," he said. "But she had no reason to lie to me. Who am I?"

    On July 6, the alarm system Cline installed came in handy. About noon, Mrs. Lyons drove over to the Tierra Verde house in a 1997 Mercedes-Benz owned by her husband's church and Edwards.

    She smashed lamps, tossed clothing around and tore pillows open, then set several fires, deputies said. Smoke set off the alarm, which alerted firefighters.

    Neighbor John McNie was driving by when he saw the smoke and heard the alarm sounding. He ran to the back of the house and broke open a screen to see whether anyone was trapped inside.

    "Everything was pitch-black from all the smoke," said McNie, 34.

    Another neighbor, Candy Cordella, went inside the house through the unlocked front door. She crawled on the floor, trying to see whether somebody might be trapped in that part of the house. In the smoke, she could see a broken lamp and some clothes but little else, said David Cordella, her father-in-law.

    After Mrs. Lyons left Tierra Verde, she drove back to her own $285,000 home in St. Petersburg's Broadwater neighborhood, crashing into a tree a block away.

    Although the floorboard of the car was littered with smashed liquor bottles, the police officer who investigated the crash did not give her a field sobriety test. Instead, he gave her a ride home.

    When deputies showed up several hours later to question her about the fire, she told them she had been drinking before she set the blaze, deputies said. They said she told them she thought her husband was having an affair.

    After her arrest, though, Mrs. Lyons told the Times that she did not believe her husband was unfaithful and that she did not purposely set the fire. She said she was a smoker and dropped a match. She could not say which brand of cigarettes she smoked.

      ©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.