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  • Who is Bernice Edwards?

    By MONICA DAVEY

    ©St. Petersburg Times, published August 3, 1997


    MILWAUKEE -- She is public relations director for the largest black religious group in the nation, the National Baptist Convention USA Inc.

    She has shared a $700,000 waterfront home in Tierra Verde, a time share in Lake Tahoe, a Rolls-Royce and a checking account with the convention's president, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons. With his local church, she holds title to a $135,000 Mercedes-Benz S 600V. She has a taste for giant diamonds and sophisticated artwork.

    But behind the facade of wealth and influence is a woman who would seem the last choice for a top job in an organization that handles millions of dollars in donations.

    Bernice V. Edwards, 40, is a woman with a disastrous financial past, a trail of debt and deceit that runs far beyond a 1993 embezzling conviction.

    During the past decade, she ran up hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid bills, nearly lost her home to foreclosure and filed for bankruptcy four times.

    Many people here who know Edwards describe a similar pattern:

    She wins them over with polished talk and ambitious business plans.

    Then the excuses start. The money doesn't come. Plans crumble.

    Those she once charmed are left feeling angry, conned or broke.

    "She is a lovely person when you first meet her," recalled Christine Howard, who worked as a counselor in a substance abuse center Edwards operated.

    Howard's paychecks often were late. Or they bounced. Or they didn't come at all, Howard said. "I thought she was really sincere and I wanted to believe her, I wanted to help her. So I put up with more than I should have."

    Howard quit after the final insult: Edwards promised to hand-deliver Howard's overdue paycheck to her house on Christmas Day.

    That was 1992.

    Howard is still waiting.

    "She has a knack for picking up jobs and resources and people," said Howard. "She knows how to hit them. She has a lot of experience with her disguises."

    A woman of mystery

    Edwards has not spoken publicly since Lyons' wife started a fire in the house Lyons and Edwards own on Tierra Verde.

    She did not answer repeated interview requests for this story. A woman who identified herself as Edwards' secretary said Edwards had been ill and could not come to the telephone. Her neighbors in Milwaukee say Edwards rarely emerges from her house. The curtains are kept drawn.

    For many, Edwards remains a mystery -- even down to her name.

    She is known as Bree Jones, Brenice Edwards, Bernice Jones, Breniece Edwards Jones, Bernice V. Edwards. She has used half a dozen Social Security numbers.

    Acquaintances say she rarely talks about her past or her family. Even people close to her said they were not certain whether she was legally married to the late Jesse Douglas "Doug" Jones, the father of her three children.

    Her children live with her: Jessica, a teenager, and two younger boys, Jesse and Joshua. She is said to be a protective, caring mother who puts her children's needs first.

    Jesse Douglas Jones died of liver cancer June 10, 1996. In Milwaukee County probate court, there is no record that he left an estate. Jones' death certificate lists Edwards as his spouse, but his brother, Jerrel, says the pair never married. In a 1991 domestic violence complaint against him, Edwards told police Jesse Jones was her "live-in boyfriend."

    Jesse Jones worked in public relations for a radio station, his death certificate states. Jerrel Jones owns a radio station and a newspaper aimed at African-Americans. His mother, Mary Ellen Strong, is a civil rights activist who once owned a different newspaper and founded a magazine.

    Jerrel Jones declined to comment about Bernice Edwards' relationship with his brother. Mary Ellen Strong, who is in her 70s, could not be reached.

    Edwards was born in Mississippi in 1956. She once said in a deposition that she graduated from high school in Carthage, Miss. Carthage High School officials say Bernice Vernell Edwards attended the school, but dropped out in 1975.

    Edwards said in the deposition that she attended Mississippi Valley State University, but did not graduate. Officials at that school in Itta Bena say Edwards attended eight weeks of summer school there in 1977.

    Then, in the 1980s, Edwards moved north, to Wisconsin. She made great first impressions, rarely did they remain so.

    'My heart melted'

    In 1988, Bernice Edwards saw an advertisement for a townhouse in the newspaper. She wanted the place.

    The owner, David Glicksman, a 65-year-old white man, was caught off guard by Edwards. He remembers her first words vividly: "You probably won't rent to me. I'm a black single parent."

    Glicksman took a look at her nice clothes and expensive-looking car. "I told her I didn't care if she was green with purple spots so long as she did two things: paid the rent and maintained the house."

    She assured him she would. She offered a reference -- her former landlady, she said. The landlady glowed about her. Glicksman rented her the house.

    "She seemed marvelous," he said.

    Only later, Glicksman said, did he learn the landlady was a member of Edwards' family.

    Within a year, Edwards fell behind on the $500-a-month rent. Glicksman brought a moving van in to evict her. She wouldn't let him in. He brought sheriff's deputies the next time. She was gone.

    Glicksman, an ambulance company employee, would not let his wife see what Edwards left behind. He was afraid she would be sick.

    "The plumbing was actually destroyed. The door to the stove had been broken off. The floors were littered. The storm door was broken off. The carpeting was ruined. You cannot possibly describe how bad the place was."

    Repairs cost $4,000.

    Donald F. Huebler and his wife, Carol, met Edwards in 1990.

    "She seemed to have it all together," Huebler said.

    Back then, Edwards owned Better Living Academy, a business that sought government grants to teach job skills to people on welfare. Edwards hired the Hueblers' company, Teller Training Institute, to teach banking classes.

    But she paid Huebler only about half the $50,000 his company was owed.

    Not my fault, Edwards told Huebler. The grant money isn't coming in, she said.

    "Of course we found out later that she had always been getting the money," Huebler said. "We didn't want to let down the students so we kept on teaching."

    Max Lehninger, a trade show manager, was introduced to Edwards at a trade show for women.

    "She was tough. She was sharp. She was in charge."

    So when Edwards began asking to borrow money from Lehninger, the 89-year-old agreed to help. She said she needed to pay her children's tuition and her family's utility bills.

    "My heart melted a little," Lehninger said.

    Edwards approached him for more and more.

    In all, he loaned her more than $80,000, he said. Repayment deadlines came and went. Lehninger called a lawyer. Today, she is making payments, he says, but still owes him $35,000.

    "My problem with her was that I thought she was a nice person."

    Sinking dreams

    Edwards always had big dreams in business. Usually they involved needy people and grant money. Usually they sank.

    Among her proposals: A reception center for children displaced from home, complete with a stuffed animal corner, a fireplace and big screen television; SPECTRUM, a support center for children in trouble with the law; a "Life Coping Skills Resource Center," a library to help poor people find jobs and manage their money.

    Those plans never became realities.

    With other enterprises, however, Edwards successfully applied for and received grant money.

    In the early 1990s, the Milwaukee County Department of Human Services was especially receptive to Edwards. Edwards got a $36,000 grant from the department to help poor people learn job skills. She got another $45,000 from the department to run a drug and alcohol program. Then the department paid her to work with drunken drivers.

    Edwards cultivated the department's director, Howard Fuller, a respected civil rights activist in Milwaukee who had known her for years and came to consider her a friend. (Department spokesman Jeff Aikin said Edwards' grant proposals went through a formal approval process like every other proposal.)

    Soon, Edwards' programs ran into trouble.

    "We started having questions about insurance, about audits," said Nancy Maier, contracts administrator for the department. "We were starting to watch more closely."

    Then Fuller left to become Milwaukee's school superintendent. Edwards threw a picnic reception in a city park for Fuller's replacement. She also applied for a grant with the school system.

    Edwards won a contract from the Milwaukee Public Schools to operate an alternative high school, Quality Skills Building Center, for 60 at-risk students. It could have been a lucrative deal for Edwards: If the school had stayed open until 1993, as planned, her school would have gotten as much as $400,000 from Milwaukee Public Schools.

    It closed abruptly in late 1992. A school audit found Edwards failed to account for funds, obtain insurance or keep invoices, payroll records, time sheets or receipts.

    Edwards and a partner were later indicted and convicted on federal charges of embezzling $60,000 at the school.

    Fuller, now director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University, said his friendship with Edwards didn't affect whether she got contracts from the agencies he supervised.

    He reflected sadly: "The most disappointing and discouraging thing for me was that these were dollars that were supposed to go to kids."

    School officials have stricter policies today for evaluating potential contractors, said Milwaukee Public Schools spokeswoman Denise Callaway. "In part, I think we learned some things from the Bernice (Edwards) situation."

    Rising debts

    In the past 10 years, Edwards' finances have crumbled.

    Among dozens of judgments totalling thousands of dollars against Edwards in Milwaukee County court:

    Three times, landlords have tried to evict Edwards or one of her businesses.

    Three times, Edwards failed to pay employees, including a secretary who said she was owed $26,639.

    Twice, Edwards failed to pay her attorneys.

    She failed to pay her childrens' $4,700 tuition to the New World Montessori School in 1990-91. She failed to pay her refrigerator repairman $200. She bounced a check for more than $2,000 to the man who installed her security system. She did not pay her dentist.

    She failed to pay for luxury items, too: a leased Alfa Romeo and four furs -- two coats, a hat and beret.

    Edwards frequently missed court hearings. People trying to serve her with court papers rarely succeeded. The times she was forced to account for her debts, her explanations sometimes stretched believability.

    In January 1994, Edwards was deposed by an attorney for a furniture company that complained she bounced checks for more than $10,000 at their store.

    It wasn't her fault, Edwards explained.

    The store clerk had promised never to cash the checks she handed him, she said. They had a special deal: He would hold the checks and she would bring him cash or money orders to really pay later on, she said.

    "He advised me that, you know . . . that Furniture Clearance Center would hold the checks, that I could either, you know, they'd hold the checks; or I'd let him know when the money was in the bank, or I would pay him, and he would pick the money up, and that's how I did it."

    The store's attorney, John G. Shannon, seemed incredulous:

    "So basically, it was your understanding that these checks were simply written to the Furniture Clearance Center, and Furniture Clearance Center would wait for you to bring in the money to clear the checks?"

    Edwards answered: "Or they would pick it up."

    Shannon: "When you say, "Or they would pick it up,' what do you mean by that?"

    Edwards: "You know, that they would come and pick the money up, pick it up at my office or at my house."

    Over a period of months, Edwards said, she had successfully reimbursed the clerk with money orders and cash for the whole amount due.

    Did she ever get a receipt?

    "I remember once he mailed me back a receipt. He mailed me a receipt once, and I think that was for $250. . . ."

    Didn't she ever ask for other receipts for all these thousands of dollars in payments?

    No.

    And what about income tax returns, the lawyer asked. Had Edwards filed them for 1992?

    "No. But I'm going to," she said.

    "And who is doing that for you?"

    "I'm in the process of getting someone -- working on someone to do that now."

    What about her businesses?

    "We're in the process of having all of that done."

    And what about the furniture? Where was it now?

    Edwards said she didn't know.

    Some of it, she gave away.

    Other pieces, she said, she put in a rented storage facility. It disappeared from there.

    "So it was stolen?" the lawyer asked.

    "It must have been."

    In 1991, Bank One of Milwaukee began to foreclose on a house Edwards bought on the city's north side. Edwards fell thousands behind on her payments. That's when the bank found out someone else had first dibs.

    "In the middle of it, we found out that the house had been foreclosed on by the city for taxes owed," said Harvey Jay Goldstein, the bank's attorney.

    Complicating the chaos, Edwards or her businesses repeatedly filed for bankruptcy:

    In January 1992, Edwards filed for personal bankruptcy protection under Chapter 13, offering to repay her debts on a schedule. Her plan was not approved. Bankruptcy court trustee Louis R. Jones said Edwards' payments were "spotty," while her debt totaled $200,000.

    Nearly a year later, she tried again, this time filing for Chapter 7 on behalf of one of her companies, Better Living Academy Inc. She said it owed $127,671. She also filed Chapter 7 for her personal debts.

    Most of her personal and business debts were wiped out by court order, Jones said.

    Only a year later, she was back in bankruptcy court. This time, she said she owed about $70,000, including a $36,000 debt to the Internal Revenue Service, Jones said. In 1995, that Chapter 13 request was turned down, Jones said, because Edwards had made just one payment through the court: $350.

    It was the year after she went to work for Henry Lyons and the National Baptist Convention USA.

    Lyons was "fully aware" of her earlier embezzling conviction, according to a letter Edwards' attorney wrote to the judge who presided over the case:

    "The National Baptist Convention has advanced funds on a periodic, regular basis to Ms. Jones to address her ($32,000) restitution obligations . . . as well as other obligations to the City of Milwaukee."

    The same year, Edwards held on to her $50,000 home by paying more than $9,000 in back taxes to the city of Milwaukee. She paid with four cashier's checks.

    Diamonds and giraffes

    After the Tierra Verde fire, Deborah Lyons told police her husband and Edwards had been having an affair.

    She has since recanted that allegation.

    Edwards' attorney says the relationship was strictly professional.

    So does Henry Lyons.

    "It is a tragedy that a close friend -- and a close friend of our family -- for several years and a business partner of mine has been falsely misrepresented as a mistress of mine," Lyons said five days after the fire. "I want to state straight out that I categorically deny that Ms. Bernice Edwards and I were carrying on an affair."

    The Rev. Wilkins Garrett, pastor of Mount Zion Progressive Baptist Church in St. Petersburg who describes himself as Lyons' best friend, is blunt: "I know him. That was not his mistress. Now, he might have a mistress, but not her. She's too damn ugly." It is unclear how Lyons came to hire a convicted embezzler with a horrendous financial record as the National Baptist Convention's public relations director for corporate affairs.

    Her pastor in Milwaukee, the Rev. Donnie Sims, says the two met before Lyons was elected convention president in 1994. Edwards was involved in the Wisconsin branch of the convention, which Sims led. Edwards campaigned vigorously for Lyons that fall.

    Sims, pastor of Jerusalem Baptist Church, said he rarely saw Edwards in his church.

    She has, during the past three years, been seen in St. Petersburg.

    Sometimes she brought her children along for the visits. She was seen at the Don Cesar Beach Resort and Spa. She shopped in the nicer spots.

    This spring, Edwards called the Dali Museum looking for some help buying art. Referred to art consultant Eric Lang Peterson, Edwards introduced herself as "Dr. Edwards," he recalled. He thought she was a psychotherapist.

    "She was very professional, very precise, very direct," Peterson said.

    Peterson showed her 10 works of art -- including a pair of ceramic giraffes, abstract paintings, clay objects and a carved wooden crocodile.

    Edwards bought them all. She gave him 10 $100 bills in cash and a $2,500 IOU due in two weeks, Peterson said. He has not heard from Edwards since. In 30 years in the art business, it is the first time Peterson has been stiffed.

    As he was leaving, Peterson recalls, Edwards suggested she might need his help sometime in the future, picking art for another place. In Lake Tahoe.

    On Edwards' birthday in 1995, Edwards and Lyons obtained a $22,500 time share in Lake Tahoe, Nev., records there show. Lyons has questioned the validity of the records.

    But their financial link goes further:

    In 1996, they became joint owners of a $700,000 Tierra Verde house. After buying the house in his own name, Lyons made Edwards a co-owner on the deed.

    This year, they had a contract to buy a $925,000 house in Charlotte, N.C. That fell through.

    From Lokey Motor Co. in Clearwater, Edwards bought the most expensive Mercedes-Benz on the market. The $135,000 car was registered to Lyons' church, Bethel Metropolitan, and Edwards -- a fact state tax investigators are interested in.

    Edwards also bought more than $130,000 of jewelry, including a 20.06 carat "Princess Cut" diamond from another Clearwater company. Bay Imports sued Edwards after it said her partial payment -- a check for $25,000 -- bounced. The check was written on an Mercantile Bank account Lyons and Edwards shared.

    In recent weeks, Lyons has suggested to church members that Edwards put up much of the money for their recent purchases.

    In fact, records show that Mary Ellen Strong, the mother of Jesse Jones, gave her 1987 Rolls Royce to Edwards and Lyons.

    "It is my understanding that Miss Edwards and her family are people of significant financial means," said Lyons' attorney, Grady Irvin.

    There is no record that Edwards has inherited a substantial amount of money. When asked whether his mother was giving Edwards money, Jerrel Jones replied emphatically: "This is obviously not even within the realm of possibility. My mother doesn't give away money. She really wouldn't want to get mixed up in any of this."

    Recently, debts have begun to mount at the Tierra Verde house. Lyons and Edwards have fallen behind on their community association fees and utility bills, records show.

    Back in Milwaukee, Edwards' acquaintances seem unsurprised by news from Florida. The diamonds, houses, cars. Edwards always had her eyes set on better things.

    "She has a great gift of talk." said Vera Campbell, who worked with Edwards for five years. "It does sound like the Bernice I know."

    'She has a way'

    Arthur Reid says he understands Bernice Edwards. He knows her well.

    Reid, 59, was convicted as her co-conspirator in the school embezzling case. Reid was chairman of the school; she was executive director. Reid, now in an Illinois prison on a cocaine charge, also says he was her boyfriend for a time.

    It is money, Reid says, not love, that moves Edwards. "Her thing is to play up on somebody and use them to get wherever she wants to go."

    Reid, a former funeral home director, met Edwards in 1991 through a Milwaukee preacher -- a mutual friend. Reid began helping her pay bills. The relationship turned into a romance.

    "She has a way about her -- if she could put it into good works, she would go far," he said.

    When the authorities got suspicious about missing school funds, Edwards blamed Reid. She agreed to testify against him. Reid got a year of prison time. Edwards got three years' probation.

    "Bernice is a stone crook," Reid said.

    "If there is anybody she knows -- anybody that she can give up -- to get herself out of trouble, she'll give them up. I feel sorry for Reverend Lyons."
    -- Times staff writers David Barstow, Adam C. Smith, Sue Landry, Sherry Robinson and Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report, as did researchers John Martin, Kitty Bennett, Carolyn Hardnett and Barbara Oliver.

      ©Copyright 2006 St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.