The Rev. Henry Lyons
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Minister's wife is arrested in arson
By TIM ROCHE, Times Staff Writer
Photo of Deborah Lyons from Times files
ST. PETERSBURG -- As the president of the nation's largest black church group, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons has been a spiritual leader to millions.
But on Monday, a different image of Lyons' private life emerged after his wife was arrested, charged with trying to burn down the expensive waterfront home she told deputies the minister shared with another woman.
Times Photo: MIKE PEASE
Deborah Lyons was arrested for setting fires in this $700,000 in Tierra Verde home owned by her husband and his business partner Bernice Edward.
Deborah Lyons, 49, told investigators Sunday afternoon that she found a deed showing her husband had bought a house with a woman in an exclusive Tierra Verde neighborhood. Mrs. Lyons, reports say, drove her Mercedes to the home on Sunday, while her husband was traveling out of the country.
Inside, reports say, she found some of her husband's clothing and other belongings. She broke lamps and threw her husband's suits around the house, reports say. She ripped the stuffing out of pillows.
She used matches to set small fires to the gutted pillows and upholstery, reports say. She left as the house began to fill with smoke, drove back to her home in the Broadwater section of St. Petersburg and crashed her car into a palm tree in a neighbor's front yard.
Later, while sheriff's deputies were questioning Mrs. Lyons at home, her husband called from Africa. He was checking in, as he often does when away from home, and learned from deputies that his wife was being arrested.
Charged with arson and burglary, Mrs. Lyons was taken to the Pinellas County Jail. She was released a short time later after posting $10,000 bail.
"Oh, this is quite a shocker," said the Rev. Joseph Gordon, pastor of Pleasant Grove Baptist Church in St. Petersburg.
Lyons, 55, could not be reached Monday. His wife initially declined comment, but said in a late-evening interview Monday that she never tried to burn the house. Some 32 hours after the fire -- and her interrogation by sheriff's detectives -- she said the case was a misunderstanding.
"It was an accident that happened. I had dropped a match," Mrs. Lyons said.
The house was burning before she left, she said, but she did not use the phone inside to call firefighters. "There was no need for me to do that," she said.
A sheriff's deputy was pulling up as she drove away, she said. She did not stay to see if the house would be damaged by the fire, she said. "I was coming back home. It may not make any sense, but that's what happened," she said.
In sheriff's reports, Mrs. Lyons told deputies she did not know about the house until recently, when she and her husband were away on a trip. She looked in his briefcase and found the deed.
Even though the reports quote her as saying she suspected her husband was "cheating" on her, Mrs. Lyons insisted late Monday that she had known about the house for some time. It has been used as a "national guest house" for luminaries and other speakers who come to St. Petersburg on behalf of the national Baptists' group, she said.
"I've been to the house several times. It's not a secret," she said. "We've owned property all over St. Petersburg."
She said she went to the house Sunday afternoon to look for business papers for her husband so she could fax them to him in Nigeria, where he is leading a delegation of contractors, engineers and Baptists leaders reviewing the country's needs for assistance.
"I don't know how the sheriff got it so wrong," she said. "My husband loves me; I love him. There's never been any doubt in my mind that he was not faithful. I just got finished talking to him on the phone."
From his pulpit at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, Lyons has spoken of the struggles of blacks in America, the wayward path of today's youths and the importance of family values.
"I'm doing some preaching now!" he is known to shout at the height of a sermon.
Beyond the church, Lyons is president of the 8.5-million member National Baptist Convention USA Inc. He founded Trusted Partners, a Christian fellowship to help black men become better husbands and fathers. He is the chief executive officer of Revelation Corp., a for-profit company that markets goods and services to members of largely black churches.
Through the 25 years of their marriage, Mrs. Lyons has been by his side. In photos printed in national publications. In a church pew, singing with the congregation. Coordinating a citywide program called YouthBuild for troubled teenagers.
The Lyonses, whose three children are grown, have a home on a canal in St. Petersburg. The house on 45th Street S was bought in 1986 for $285,000.
County records show that Lyons paid more than twice that -- about $700,000 -- last year for a five-bedroom, three-story home on Sixth Avenue N in Tierra Verde.
Thomas Swanson and his wife had spent two years trying to sell the house when a real estate agent approached them on behalf of Lyons and Bernice V. Edwards.
"I know the gal was his mistress," Swanson said Monday. "The real estate people didn't hide it."
Lyons and Edwards toured the house together and made decisions about financing and upgrades, he said.
The Swansons often wondered how Lyons, as a minister, could afford the house. But they asked no questions.
His salary as a minister could not be confirmed Monday, and the national Baptist group would not say how much he is paid there. Mrs. Lyons seemed surprised when asked how her husband could afford such an expensive house on a minister's wages.
"Well, now, I don't know what kind of question that is," she said. "My husband works every day; he works hard. Like I said before, it's a national guest house."
When he was obtaining a mortgage for $455,000 on the Tierre Verde property, records initially listed Lyons as married. But the records were changed to "a single man" before he signed them and they were filed with the county.
After obtaining a mortgage for the house and becoming the sole owner, Lyons filed a quit-claim deed with the county. This time, he listed himself and Edwards as joint owners. Again, he indicated he was unmarried.
Other residents in Tierra Verde said Monday they knew little about their new neighbors. They said they knew the woman as "B" and the man as "Henry." They assumed they were husband and wife.
But neither was at the house very often.
"I always thought he lived there with her," said David Shiphorst, who lives across the street. "He always got out of his car at night. He'd put up the garage door and drive in. It's not like he was carrying an overnight bag."
Edwards hardly seemed to drive, always using cabs or airport limousines. The neighbors would see Lyons arrive in a Mercedes or a Rolls-Royce, which was parked in the garage Monday. The deep-blue 1987 Rolls is registered to Lyons and Edwards.
After the fire on Sunday, Edwards called a friend, Goldie Huebner, to see if she could send her husband over to check on the house. On Monday, Edwards phoned again.
"She asked me to change the locks," Ronald Huebner said.
Very little could be determined about Edwards on Monday, including her age. Except for the Rolls registration and the deed for the house, she was not listed in computerized records.
Edwards told neighbors she had been married to a man who worked in radio or television before he died about a year or so ago. She worked in public relations and traveled a lot, she said.
Mrs. Lyons said Monday that Edwards lived in Wisconsin and visited here occasionally. She said her husband and Edwards were business partners. Edwards, she said, does public-relations work for the national Baptist group, as well as for the St. Petersburg church. Edwards was in Africa this week.
"We have a very good relationship, she and I," Mrs. Lyons said. "Everything is above-board."
Are her husband and Edwards having an affair? "Oh, no," Mrs. Lyons said repeatedly.
"My husband has always been very above-board with me. I have no reason to doubt him at all."
-- Times writers Mike Wilson, Waveney Moore and Jane Meinhardt contributed to this report, as did researcher Carolyn Hardnett.
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