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Mrs. Lyons pleads guilty to arson, gets probation

By CRAIG PITTMAN

©St. Petersburg Times, published October 21, 1997


LARGO -- The Deborah Lyons who came to court Monday to plead guilty to arson was quiet, controlled, dignified. As her attorneys pleaded with a judge not to send her to prison, two tears rolled down her cheeks, but otherwise she kept her emotions in check.
D_Lyons
Times photo by RICARDO FERRO

A tear rolls down Deborah Lyons' cheek while her attorneys plead with a judge not to send her to prison. Mrs. Lyons can return in a year or two to ask the judge to end her probation early.

When she left, after being placed on five years' probation, she beamed while walking hand-in-hand with her husband, the Rev. Henry Lyons.

She seemed a far different woman on July 6, the day she set fire to a Tierra Verde house her husband, president of the National Baptist Convention USA, owns with convicted embezzler Bernice Edwards.

On that day, when two Pinellas County deputies showed up at her door to talk to her about the fire, she kept pounding her legs with her fists and wailing, "Why did he do this to me?"

She said her husband had told her she was too fat and had lost interest in having sex with her, complaining he was tired or his prostate was bothering him. She said he had bought the Tierra Verde house "for his girlfriend," according to investigative reports made public Monday.

When the officers asked where her husband was, she said, "He's in Africa with her!"

Her foot was bleeding, apparently cut by the mirrors and lamps she had broken when she trashed the Tierra Verde house, but she appeared not to notice. She was so distraught that Detective Terry Sterling took Mrs. Lyons' daughter aside to ask if there were any weapons in the house. He was concerned she might harm herself.

In court Monday, Mrs. Lyons, 49, told Circuit Judge Douglas Baird that she had been "drinking and under stress at the time" she set the fires.

"This is not an excuse for my actions," she added.

Her attorneys, Paul Meissner and Kevin Hayslett, said she pleaded guilty because she has always believed in taking responsibility for her actions. Sentencing guidelines called for her to go to prison for at least 34 months, but prosecutor Bill Loughery did not object to probation.

Although Mrs. Lyons pleaded guilty, the judge withheld a formal finding of guilt, which means she will not have a felony conviction on her record.

While on probation, she must abstain from alcohol, continue attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, undergo a psychological evaluation and perform 200 hours of community service.

If she does all of that, and there is no demand for restitution from the company that holds the mortgage on the house where she caused $30,000 in damages, she can come back in a year or two and ask the judge to end her probation early, Hayslett said.

After they left court, Mrs. Lyons and her husband agreed to answer reporters' questions. The second question was if Lyons felt any guilt for driving his wife to arson. Meissner abruptly announced that the conference was over. The Lyonses hopped in a Mercedes and drove away.

In a way, a Mercedes started the whole thing.

Before Christmas, Mrs. Lyons discovered several gifts in the trunk of the car and figured she was in for a good holiday, she told deputies on July 6. But when Christmas came and those presents were not under the tree, she began to suspect her husband was unfaithful, she told them.

When she and her husband traveled to Houston in June, she said, she found a deed to the Tierra Verde house in his briefcase. When they got back to St. Petersburg, she tailed him to the house so she could see where it was, she said.

Lyons purchased the $700,000 waterfront estate on March 1, 1996, paying at least $90,000 of the down payment from a National Baptist Convention USA Inc. account. To secure a loan, he also presented a lease that said the National Baptist Convention would rent the house back from Lyons.

Originally Edwards was also listed as a buyer, but she had a poor credit history. Lyons bought the house himself, then signed a quit-claim deed making her a joint owner.

He and Edwards showed up together to close the deal in the offices of St. Petersburg lawyer Seymour Gordon. Gordon told prosecutors that he asked Lyons if he was married, and "Lyons said he was single," according to the documents released Monday.

So on the quit-claim deed and mortgage Lyons was listed as single, and his wife is not mentioned.

Since his wife's arrest, Lyons has repeatedly denied having a romantic relationship with Edwards. He has described the Tierra Verde house alternately as an investment property for Edwards and a national guest house for the convention.

He has insisted that he has no idea why he was listed as single and told prosecutors he could not remember anything about a lease.

"It was so confusing that day at the closing," he told prosecutors. "I remember insisting that it would be a guest house. And I didn't want any mistake about that because I was concerned about that for appearance sake and public consumption sake."

Despite Lyons' denials, among the documents released by the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office was a report by Deputy Rick Wright, who said he had met the woman staying at the Tierra Verde house several times and she always identified herself as Mrs. Lyons, wife of a prominent minister.

It was Edwards, he later learned.

Lyons told prosecutors he and Edwards told his wife about the house during a Memorial Day cookout at his $285,000 home on 45th Street S. But Mrs. Lyons told the deputies that when she confronted her husband about the house after the trip to Houston, he told her "not to worry about it, it was none of her concern," according to Sterling's report.

In early July, Lyons and Edwards left on a trip to Nigeria. Before her husband's departure Mrs. Lyons swiped his spare keys, she told deputies. Before noon on July 6 -- a Sunday -- she drove out to take her first look inside the Tierra Verde house.

As she wandered around the four-bedroom, 10,000-square-foot house, she said, she found her husband's clothing in closets. That's when she lost control, according to Sterling's report.

She yanked out drawers. She cracked a chair, overturned plants, pulled the stereo out of the entertainment center and scattered compact discs across the floor.

Fire
State Attorney's Office handout photo

Mrs. Lyons broke mirrors and lamps in the Tierra Verde house. She told deputies her husband had bought the 10,000-square-foot house "for his girlfriend," according to investigative reports.
See more photos of the fire

Detectives later found her fingerprints on some of the discs, including one sold by Victoria's Secret stores and another recorded by Luther Vandross.

She slashed the upholstery with scissors. Then she set several fires. Crime scene photos show two burnt matches stuffed into one of the cushions she cut open.

Eventually one match worked, starting a blaze that scorched a hallway, carpet and walls, even melting a television set.

As Mrs. Lyons left the house she was seen by Deputy John Fitzgerald, who waved at her. She did not wave back. Fifteen minutes later, when he saw fire trucks, Fitzgerald alerted investigators to find the woman in the black Mercedes.

Mrs. Lyons was bound for home, passing one couple who said she was weaving all over the road and speeding. She even ran a red light, they said. As she made the last turn before her house, she smashed the car into a palm tree.

A St. Petersburg police officer, Michael Morgan, investigated the crash. When he asked Mrs. Lyons what happened, she "stated emotionally that her husband had been cheating on her," according to the investigative records.

Morgan noticed a pair of scissors on the front seat, and saw several shattered liquor bottles on the floorboards. But he said he did not smell alcohol on Mrs. Lyons' breath. He gave her a ride home.

Meanwhile neighbors of the Tierra Verde house had seen the smoke and called 911. Had they not done so, firefighters said, the house would have burned to the ground in minutes.

Investigators quickly put Fitzgerald's sighting of the woman in the black Mercedes together with Mrs. Lyons' crash and figured out who their prime suspect was. Sterling and Fitzgerald went to Mrs. Lyons' house and knocked on the door. At first no one answered.

They located her oldest daughter, Stephanie, and she coaxed Mrs. Lyons into letting them in and answering their questions. At first, Sterling said, she denied being in the Tierra Verde house.

But when Sterling pointed out that Fitzgerald had seen her, and that she had told Morgan her husband was having an affair, she "became very emotional and began wailing and striking her thighs and the couch with her fists," Sterling wrote.

"What did I do to deserve this?" she cried, and then "Oh, Jesus, Jesus help me."

Then she admitted everything, Sterling wrote. She told them she had been drinking before the fire. She mentioned she and her husband had just celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary.

Now, she said, "I'm just his whore. I'm doing the dirty work, the cleaning and the cooking, and she (Edwards) gets the big house."

As Sterling was preparing to arrest Mrs. Lyons, Lyons called from Nigeria. Sterling told him what had happened. Lyons said he "guessed there was nothing he could do since he was in Africa," Sterling wrote.

"When he asked how Mrs. Lyons was handling being arrested, I advised him she did not seem to be as upset about being arrested compared to her being upset with him," the detective wrote. "He related he could understand this."

On the way to the jail, Sterling wrote, Mrs. Lyons kept on talking. She said her husband had become "domineering" and "very emotionally abusive toward her over the past several years," he wrote.

Lyons would arrive home at 3 a.m., claiming he had been working, she told Sterling. He had been too busy to attend his daughter's college graduation, she said.

Yet she had to always "put up the image of being the first lady," taking care of the home and family, being by his side when he needed her, Sterling wrote.

When prosecutors questioned Lyons about a month later, he told them a completely different story about how his wife wound up at the Tierra Verde house that day.

He said he had asked her to fetch important documents from the house and fax them to him in Nigeria. But she couldn't locate the documents, and because she had been drinking she began wandering around the house, he said.

"She remembered lighting a match to light her cigarette, and she doesn't remember a thing after that," Lyons told them.

Prosecutor Frank Piazza asked him just what documents were so important.

"I had this concept paper as to how we could build houses for those Nigerians based on our technology that we have," Lyons said. "They have the labor but they don't have the technology. We have the technology. I mean, I don't know what it is, but we have it. . . . So I wanted to show that concept while I was there. I never got the papers."

Loughery asked Lyons if he had retrieved the papers from the Tierra Verde house when he got back. "Well, I haven't been there and seen it," Lyons replied.


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