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  • Lyons had deal for estate

    Lyons_checks Photo by Art Gentile

    Rev. Henry J. Lyons and Bernice Edwards paid a $2,000 deposit and signed a contract to buy this 5-area estate near Charlotte, N.C., the owner says. The pastor and Bernice Edwards were to close on the $900,000 mansion Tuesday. The owner says he doesn't expect to hear from them.

    By DAVID BARSTOW

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published July 17, 1997


    CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The mansion is 5,500 square feet of secluded luxury, with a vast master suite and adjoining study, a pool and a Jacuzzi, a marble foyer, garage space for five cars, impeccable grounds on five rolling acres of prime real estate.

    The asking price: $995,000.

    Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons and Bernice Edwards, the convicted embez-zler with whom he purchased a $700,000 Tierra Verde home, planned to buy this estate, too, according to four people directly involved in the negotiations.

    Lyons and Edwards paid the home seller a $2,000 deposit and signed a contract to purchase the property for $925,000.

    Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. and pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, sought and received approval for a $500,000 mortgage on the home.

    In fact, Lyons and Edwards were scheduled to close the deal on Tuesday of this week.

    But the sale fell through after Lyons' wife of 25 years was arrested last week and charged with setting fire to the house on Tierra Verde. Police say Deborah Lyons told them that Edwards was her husband's mistress, a statement since denied by Henry and Deborah Lyons.

    Lyons has described Edwards as a close family friend and business partner.

    Asked about the Charlotte home on Wednesday, Lyons' attorney, Grady Irvin said: "I am unaware of any real estate ventures that Dr. Lyons has engaged in in the state of North Carolina."

    Without seeing the documents involved, Irvin said, it would be inappropriate for him to comment on them. "I have not seen any proof of this . . . contract. I don't believe that one exists."

    Lyons himself was not taking questions about the house.

    As for Edwards, her Milwaukee attorney, Franklyn M. Gimbel, said she "chooses not to respond."

    The home's owner, retired insurance executive William E. Buckley, said he and his wife were misled by Lyons and Edwards. Among other things, he said, Edwards was portrayed to him as "Dr. Bernice Edwards," a psychiatrist from Milwaukee.

    There is no record that Edwards has ever been a licensed psychiatrist.

    "This has been a painful experience for us, and a costly one," Buckley said.

    Others involved in the deal also said they were misled.

    Kathryn M. Pritchard, the Coldwell Banker real estate agent in Charlotte who represented Lyons and Edwards, said she was never told that Edwards was convicted of embezzling in 1994 or that Lyons paid $85,000 in restitution after he was investigated for bank fraud in 1991.

    "I'm just an innocent person," Pritchard said. "I did nothing improper."

    The estate is about 10 miles southeast of downtown Charlotte, at the end of a private road that winds through a lush forest, past a dozen or so other mansions shielded by security gates and tall hedges. The closest neighbor is professional basketball player Del Curry of the Charlotte Hornets.

    The house, a stately structure of red brick and white columns, was built in 1991 by Buckley, the former chairman and chief executive officer of Royal Insurance USA, a major firm in Charlotte. He and his wife, Elizabeth, now live in New Hampshire.

    According to Buckley, Bernice Edwards signed a contract to purchase the house on Feb. 19. For a deposit, the Buckleys received a cashier's check for $2,000 from the United Bank in St. Petersburg, bearing the names of both Edwards and Lyons, Buckley said.

    United Bank is the same bank that financed a $135,000 Mercedes-Benz bought this year in the name of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church and Bernice Edwards.

    Under the sales contract, the Buckleys were to receive an additional $50,000 deposit payment by March 7.

    The payment never arrived.

    "It was always, "The check's in the mail,' " Buckley said.

    Their contract, however, did not give Buckley the right to unilaterally cancel the sale, and North Carolina law requires the parties to give each other "reasonable additional time" to fulfill the terms of the contract, said Woody Efird, the Buckley's attorney.

    As a result, Efird advised the Buckleys to continue honoring the contract and hope for the best. For a time, it appeared that progress was being made.

    In mid-April, the Buckleys received a substitute contract to buy the house, this one signed by both Lyons and Edwards. They also received a letter from Chase Manhattan Mortgage Corp. in St. Petersburg, which stated that Lyons had been approved for a $500,000 conventional fixed-rate mortgage. The rest of the purchase price -- $425,000 -- was to come in the form of cash, the Buckleys were told.

    A closing was scheduled for May 15. Without warning, Lyons and Edwards failed to show, according to several people involved.

    Efird said he spoke to Edwards a few days later on a conference call with Kathryn Pritchard, the real estate agent. Efird demanded that Edwards and Lyons produce the $50,000 deposit still owed on the house. Edwards asked for more time. She said that she was speaking to them from an airplane en route to Nigeria to join Lyons.

    She promised they would come up with the funds, Efird said. "She said she was working on it."

    A new closing date was set for Tuesday of this week, shortly after Lyons and Edwards were scheduled to return from Nigeria.

    Then Deborah Lyons set fire to the Tierra Verde home (by accident, she has since said) and suddenly Henry Lyons and Bernice Edwards were major news. Lyons cut short his Nigeria trip and today will face the Board of Directors of the National Baptist Convention in an emergency meeting. Officially, the new closing date was never canceled, but Buckley said he didn't expect the deal to go through given the news coverage.

    "My mama didn't raise a complete fool," he said.

    It is unclear how Edwards' checkered past -- which includes bankruptcies and a trail of unpaid debts to go with her embezzling conviction -- went undetected by the real estate professionals involved in the transaction.

    Pritchard declined to comment on what steps she took to examine the credit worthiness of her clients.

    "When we first got bad vibes about our $50,000, Kathy Pritchard said she had done some research on the Internet," Efird said. In an apparent attempt to reassure the Buckleys, Pritchard told Efird that her research showed that Lyons was president of the convention, the largest black church organization in the country.

    Efird and the Buckleys said they expected Pritchard and the mortgage company to screen Edwards and Lyons for any potential problems. The Buckleys never spoke to Lyons or Edwards.

    "I knew virtually nothing (about them) until I saw the first article," Efird said.

    One surprise from the news: that Lyons is married. North Carolina property laws say the spouse also must sign any mortgage.

    "I do not have her signature on any document," Efird said.

    (In purchasing the Tierra Verde property, Lyons stated he was single.)

    Also unclear is how Lyons and Edwards intended to raise $425,000 to make up the difference between the mortgage and the purchase price on the Charlotte property. "I have no knowledge of where the rest of the money was coming from," Efird said.

    (Lyons paid for the Tierra Verde house with a $455,000 mortgage and $245,000 in cash.)

    What is clear is that the deal with Lyons cost the Buckleys money. Their house was held off the market during prime selling season. And their desire to be rid of it has increased.

    This week, another potential buyer emerged and made an offer to buy the property. The buyer, a young, wealthy venture capitalist, said he was told the Buckleys were anxious to sell.

    "We made a low-ball offer and it was accepted," he said.


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