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  • Mrs. Lyons still can change her plea

    By CRAIG PITTMAN and MONICA DAVEY, Times Staff Writers
    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 26, 1997


    LARGO -- An attorney for Deborah Lyons asked a judge Monday for a pre-sentencing investigation but later said that does not necessarily mean she will plead guilty or no contest to arson.

    "We're leaving all our options open," defense attorney Kevin Hayslett said. "We're not committing to anything."

    Mrs. Lyons, 49, did not accompany her attorney for her arraignment Monday. She previously filed a written plea of innocent.

    A pre-sentencing investigation often is requested by people who intend to change their plea to guilty or no contest and hope to use it to show judges reasons for departing from state sentencing guidelines, although sometimes it is requested before a trial.

    Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Douglas Baird scheduled Mrs. Lyons' next hearing for Oct. 20 to give state Department of Corrections employees time to prepare the report.

    In the report, corrections officials generally include comments from investigators and from the crime victim -- in this case, the defendant's husband, the Rev. Henry Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA and longtime pastor of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg.

    The report may also include a recommended sentence, although the judge is not required to follow the recommendation. Prosecutors say that, under state guidelines, Mrs. Lyons could face a minimum prison sentence of two years and 10 months and a maximum of four years and nine months.

    Mrs. Lyons was arrested July 6 after Pinellas deputies said she set fire to a $700,000 house in Tierra Verde, causing $30,000 in damage. They charged her with burglary and arson.

    The deputies said Mrs. Lyons told them she had just learned her husband owned the house with another woman and feared he was unfaithful.

    A day after her arrest, after she was released on bail, Mrs. Lyons told a Times reporter that she had known about the house all along. She said she had gone there to get papers for her husband, lit a cigarette and accidentally dropped a match.

    After interviewing Mrs. Lyons' husband, prosecutors decided to formally charge Mrs. Lyons with arson. Their decision on the burglary charge is still pending because they have yet to speak to the other owner of the house, convicted embezzler Bernice Edwards.

    The fire led to a number of other developments, including revelations that Lyons owns a time-share condominium in Lake Tahoe, Nev., with Edwards and tried to buy a house in Charlotte, N.C., with her; that they purchased expensive jewelry and paid the Tierra Verde house's utility bills using money from the Baptist Builder Fund.

    The fund is not mentioned in any of the convention's financial statements, and other convention officials said they had never heard of such a fund, which is at the United Bank and Trust Co. in St. Petersburg.

    Last week, prosecutors overcame opposition from Lyons' attorneys and began reviewing those bank accounts. U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson announced that federal investigators are also looking into Lyons' affairs. Lyons himself appointed a committee of National Baptist Convention members to investigate whether he did anything wrong.

    Meanwhile, groups of pastors around the nation have called for Lyons to step down. A group of 15 to 20 pastors from the New York area has come forward to denounce Lyons, said the Rev. Emory Johnson, pastor of a church in Queens.

    But the president of New York state's branch of the convention says Johnson's group is "just a few people, and they don't represent New York."

    The Rev. Samuel Austin, president of he Empire State Baptist Convention, said he still supports Lyons and will wait to hear from the investigating committee.

    "Every man deserves his day in court," Austin said.


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