The Rev. Henry Lyons
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Police want to question Lyons on check-cashing
By TIM ROCHE
©St. Petersburg Times, published July 19, 1997
ST. PETERSBURG -- More than $28,000 in checks belonging to the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. were cashed by a woman thought to be a secretary for the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, investigators said Friday.
A letter kept on file at a check-cashing store in St. Petersburg gave the secretary permission to convert the donations to cash, but investigators now say the letter did not contain an original signature from Lyons.
"It appears to be a facsimile," said Sheriff Everett S. Rice. "It looks like it could be a rubber stamp."
As the investigation progresses, detectives still hope to question the secretary, Sheila J. Perry, as well as Lyons. Perry is his secretary at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg.
A woman who identifies herself as Perry, 47, has been going about every other day to America's Cash Express in Webb Plaza, according to employees of the store. When employees questioned why she was cashing checks payable to the Baptist convention, the store was given the letter bearing Lyons' signature and told that Perry was authorized to cash any checks for the convention or its fund-raising campaigns.
The store turned over records Thursday, and detectives determined that $28,000 worth of checks made out to National Baptist Convention organizations had been cashed at the store over 10 months.
The checks have raised more questions for Lyons, whose finances and lavish lifestyle were revealed after the minister's wife, Deborah, was arrested on burglary and arson charges July 6.
Mrs. Lyons is charged with setting fires inside the $700,000 Tierra Verde house her husband owns with another woman, Bernice V. Edwards, who is a convicted embezzler. Lyons and Edwards also own a 1987 Rolls Royce together, and Lyons' church is listed with Edwards on the title of a $135,000 Mercedes Benz.
Lyons has denied having an affair with Edwards. Questions also have been raised about Lyons' relationship with another woman, Brenda Harris, who lives in a $300,000 Nashville home and works for the national convention. Lyons has denied having an affair with her, though Harris' neighbors said she had introduced Lyons as her fiance.
On Thursday, the convention's board of directors gave Lyons a vote of confidence after a closed-door meeting in Nashville. But the matter is far from resolved. Several members of the national organization still plan to seek Lyons' resignation or removal from office when the full conference meets in September in Denver.
In coming weeks, Lyons will be asked to sit down with local investigators to discuss the fire in Tierra Verde. In addition to the fire, detectives are beginning to show interest in official records signed by Lyons on which he said he was a "single man" when obtaining a mortgage for the Tierra Verde house and later when he filed a quit-claim deed transferring ownership of the house to him and Edwards.
Detectives already have issued subpoenas for mortgage records on the Tierra Verde house.
Although no arrangements have been worked out for a formal interview, investigators say they also plan to question Lyons about the checks.
His lawyer, Grady Irvin of Tampa, has insisted all along that Lyons did not endorse the letter authorizing the checks to be cashed. He repeatedly said the original letter would prove it.
But he was careful not to call the letter a fraud -- even after the sheriff said Friday that the signature likely had come from a rubber stamp. He said he did not want to imply that anybody had been involved in criminal activity -- Lyons or anyone else. "Let me say this to you: I do not anticipate that the convention will request that any formal charges be brought against anyone in this matter," Irvin said, declining to elaborate.
Rice said the investigation will continue.
"He's already claiming he's a victim because he said he didn't give anybody permission to cash the checks," Rice said.
State Attorney Bernie McCabe said he will complete the investigation before deciding how to handle the case. He acknowledged it could be difficult to prosecute anybody if Lyons claims he gave consent -- even after the fact -- for the checks to be cashed.
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