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  • No DUI test given to Deborah Lyons

    Photo of Lyon's Mercedes


    The wrecked Mercedes-Benz has become a symbol of the Rev. Henry Lyons' current troubles. He bought the $135,000 car with Bernice Edwards.
    (Times photo: V. Jane Windsor)

    By TIM ROCHE

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 7, 1997

    ST. PETERSBURG -- Less than 10 minutes after a suspicious house fire in Tierra Verde, Deborah Lyons was driving back to her house in St. Petersburg when she crashed a $135,000 Mercedes into a palm tree.

    When St. Petersburg police Officer Michael E. Morgan arrived to investigate the accident on July 6, he saw four broken liquor bottles on the floor of the car.

    But the officer did not test Mrs. Lyons to determine whether alcohol might have been a factor in the accident. To him, she appeared sober.

    Four hours later, Pinellas County sheriff's investigators reached a different conclusion about Mrs. Lyons.

    When they questioned her about the house fire, she told them that she had been drinking before the blaze. They wrote in arrest reports that alcohol was a contributing factor in the fire at the house, which is owned by Mrs. Lyons' husband, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, and another woman.

    Morgan, the St. Petersburg officer who investigated the car crash, said Wednesday that he did not view Mrs. Lyons as being outwardly intoxicated. In fact, he said, he lacked probable cause to even ask her to perform a field sobriety test.

    On Wednesday, a month after the crash, the 1997 Mercedes still smelled of alcohol. But Morgan said that, on the day of the accident, Mrs Lyons did not.

    The officer said he was not influenced by the fact that Mrs. Lyons was the wife of a prominent Baptist minister, but he said he did not ask her why she was carrying the liquor bottles in the car. He assumed the bottles of bourbon and cognac were broken by the impact of the car hitting the tree.

    "From what I had at the time -- even though she is who she is and despite what's all come up since then -- there's nothing that I would look back at and say I'd do differently," said Morgan, a field training officer who has an exemplary record in his 11 years on the force.

    The Mercedes has become a symbol in the scandal involving Mrs. Lyons and her husband, the Rev. Lyons, president of the National Baptist Convention USA Inc.

    Since his wife's arrest on arson and burglary charges in the Tierra Verde fire, the Rev. Lyons has undergone scrutiny about his finances and affluent lifestyle. He owns the Tierra Verde house with Bernice Edwards, a Milwaukee woman who is a convicted embezzler and the convention's public relations director. Lyons and Edwards also own a 1987 Rolls Royce and a time-share at Lake Tahoe, Nev.

    The Mercedes S-600, which Mrs. Lyons was driving, is registered in the name of her husband's church, Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, and Bernice Edwards. The state Department of Revenue is reviewing whether the proper sales tax was paid on the luxury car.

    Mrs. Lyons crashed the Mercedes less than a block away from her house on 45th Street S. She was rounding a corner when she apparently lost control and hit the tree, police reports say. Neighbors heard the crash and ran to help her. They tried to persuade her to stay in the car in case she was injured.

    She was crying, but the neighbors said they could not tell whether she was intoxicated, even though one man said he noticed the broken liquor bottles in the car.

    "The police pretty much whisked her away," said neighbor Ken Mahoney.

    Mrs. Lyons had been driving close to the 30-mph speed limit but was driving carelessly in inclement weather, police reports say.

    Officer Morgan did not cite her. "It was a single-vehicle accident. The only damage was to her own vehicle," he said.

    "There was not any question as to the cause of the accident. I've handled other accidents where I have not cited anyone. That is not uncommon."

    Mrs. Lyons had no proof the car was insured, but Morgan did not ticket her. The officer said he was able to reach the church later and verify the car was covered.

    While waiting for a tow truck, the officer drove Mrs. Lyons to her house. She got into another Mercedes and drove back to the palm tree to inspect the damage to her car. A wrecker eventually towed the car to her house, pieces of bark enmeshed in the bent grill and bumper.

    Mrs. Lyons was sleeping several hours later when Pinellas sheriff's investigators arrived to question her about the fire in Tierra Verde. In a tearful interview, she told investigators that she had suspected her husband was having an affair with Bernice Edwards after she found a deed to the Tierra Verde house in her husband's briefcase. She said she became upset after she went to the house and found her husband's clothes and other belongings.

    Mrs. Lyons told the investigators that she had been drinking before she ransacked the house and set fires to cushions and pillows in the house, said sheriff's spokeswoman Marianne Pasha.

    The detectives examined the Mercedes, seeing the liquor bottles, and seized the car as evidence in the arson. Neighbors in Tierra Verde had reported seeing a black Mercedes leaving the house about the time of the fire.

    In addition to glass from the broken bottles, detectives also found at least two books of 7-Eleven matches and a purple lighter on the car's floorboard. The matches and lighter were left in the car after it was taken to the impound lot at the Tri-J Co. in St. Petersburg.

    Deputy Calvin Dennie, a sheriff's spokesman, said the matches were not considered evidence because detectives could not prove they were used to set the fire in Tierra Verde.

    After her arrest, Mrs. Lyons told the Times she did not purposely set the fire. She said the blaze was an accident; she dropped a match. She also said she smoked cigarettes, but could not say what brand.

    Kevin Hayslett, the lawyer who represents Mrs. Lyons, could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

    In a letter to prosecutors last month, one of Lyons' attorneys, Grady Irvin, predicted they would find it difficult to charge Mrs. Lyons with arson.

    "I am confident your investigation will determine that Mrs. Lyons could not have formed the intent to have engaged in any wrongdoing at the Tierra Verde property," Irvin wrote.

    Although Irvin has declined to elaborate on what he meant, attorneys generally make the argument concerning the inability to form a criminal intent in connection with a defense of impairment from mental illness, drugs or alcohol abuse. Prosecutors are still reviewing evidence and have not formally charged Mrs. Lyons.

    But investigators have finished with the Mercedes.

    The car, with 3,502 miles on the odometer and a cellular phone built into the arm rest, was released by investigators July 15. The Tri-J Co. sent letters to Lyons' church and to United Bank, which holds the lien, indicating the car was ready to be picked up. Lyons called one day to say he was going to get the car, but he never showed up, said J.R. Kology, one of the company's owners.

    On Wednesday, three weeks later, a church deacon paid $408.32 in cash to retrieve the Mercedes. The car, which sustained at least $10,000 in damage in the crash, could not be driven. A tow truck picked up the car and took it to a dealership to be repaired.

     

    Sequence of events on July 6:

    1. Noon: Deborah Lyons allegedly sets several fires inside the $700,000 house on Sixth Avenue N in Tierra Verde. She then drives toward her house in St. Petersburg.

    2. 12:09 p.m. Mrs. Lyons, driving a 1997 Mercedes registered to her husband's church and to another woman, crashes into a palm tree a block away from her house on 45th Street S. Neighbors and the investigating police officer find broken liquor bottles in the passenger's floorboard. The officer drives her home, but does not test her for driving under the influence of alcohol.

    3. 4-4:30 p.m. Pinellas County sheriff's detectives go to question Lyons at her house. She tells them she was under the influence of alcohol when she set the Tierra Verde house on fire. She is arrested and charged with arson and burglary. The Mercedes is seized as evidence.

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