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Supporters of Dr. Henry Lyons of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church board a church bus outside the federal courthouse on Zack Street in Tampa after Lyons' appearance at federal court Monday. [Times photo: Cherie Diez]

Lyons' flock pledges faith, money during hearing

By MONICA DAVEY and DAVID BARSTOW

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 7, 1998


TAMPA -- Two church vans pulled up outside the federal courthouse.

Out stepped members of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, wearing suits and dresses. Some ladies clutched a nearby arm for support. A few waved fans against the noon heat. One walked with a cane.

A Ministry Questioned: more coverage from the pages of the St. Petersburg Times.
The procession quietly made its way past cameras, through courthouse security and into the waiting arms of Deborah Lyons, their pastor's wife.

"You look so good," she told one woman.

Mrs. Lyons ushered them to Courtroom B, where her husband, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons, was soon to plead innocent to 56 federal charges. Sixty strong, they squeezed into the three rows. Mrs. Lyons sat in front.

"You okay, mom?" Vonda Lyons whispered.

A woman approached. She had come straight from the doctor to be here, she told Mrs. Lyons. The hospital bracelet still was on her wrist.

On Monday, in a stifling courtroom with broken air conditioning, Henry Lyons' flock showed its support in spirit and money. Some pledged their homes to secure his release on $125,000 bail.

"We do have faith in him," Jerome Smith told the judge, explaining why he was willing to stake his house on Lyons, who could face 20 years in prison.

There was no such outpouring of support for Lyons' co-defendant, Brenda D. Harris, who works for Lyons at the National Baptist Convention USA Inc., and who prosecutors say was Lyons' paramour.

Nearly all the Bethel members left the courtroom, along with their pastor, before Harris rose to plead innocent to eight charges. Setting her bail at $50,000, U.S. Magistrate Thomas B. McCoun III admonished Harris not to miss any hearings.

"I have no problem with that," Harris said in a low, firm voice. "I want to show up because I want to show I'm not guilty."

Just outside the courtroom, Henry, Deborah and Vonda Lyons greeted each church member with a handshake or a hug, just as if they were wrapping up Sunday services.

"It really did feel like church in there," Henry Lyons would say later. "We had a very strong show of support today ... I want to say thank you, I really do appreciate it."

'I will be healed'

Lyons worked hard to generate Monday's show of support. On Sunday, during services at Bethel, his attorney, Grady Irvin, took the pulpit to urge the congregation to attend the court hearing

After Amazing Grace, Lyons preached about how God sometimes teaches important lessons by inflicting pain. "You know, I had an emergency Thursday," he said, referring to his federal indictment last week. "I will be healed, and I know that."

The church roared its approval.

Later, during a prayer vigil, Grady Irvin set a copy of the 74-page indictment on the altar, symbolically giving the case up to God's will.

Religious and racial themes continue to play a prominent role in Lyons' emerging defense strategy. Irvin repeatedly has cast the case as nothing less than an assault upon the black church by white media organizations.

Returning to this theme on Monday, Irvin asked McCoun to seal the names of church members who guaranteed Lyons' bond. He said they deserved to be protected from reporters whose "relentless" pursuit of the story is "tantamount to harassment."

McCoun denied the request.

At one point, Mrs. Lyons turned to Bethel members in the court and warned: "We're not to comment to the media at all."

Her words were heeded.

Harris' arrival

Brenda Harris leaves federal dourt in Tampa with her attorneys after a bond hearing Monday. [Times photo: Jim Stem]
Brenda Harris flew into town from her home in Nashville, where Lyons hired her to direct travel plans for the National Baptist Convention after he became president in 1994. Some of Harris' neighbors also thought Harris was engaged to Lyons, though Harris and Lyons have denied a romance

Along with Lyons, Harris is charged with conspiracy, bank fraud and money laundering in what prosecutors describe as a larger scheme to use the convention "as a vehicle to steal and extort millions of dollars" from companies and banks.

Harris arrived at the federal courthouse at 9:45 a.m., surrounded by four lawyers, including Louis Kwall and Greg Showers of Clearwater. Harris smiled faintly but declined comment to the crowd of waiting reporters and photographers. "Not today," she said.

In the basement, Harris took out a prayer book as she waited in the reception area of the U.S. marshal's office to turn herself in. She read from a page highlighted in yellow.

The heading: "In Need Of Courage."

When a marshal's service employee emerged, Harris reached out to shake her hand. Harris was told to remove her jewelry and to leave her purse with her attorneys. As she pulled off her earrings and brooch, an otherwise somber Harris managed a joke.

"You look good," she told her attorney, Nader Baydoun, who was awkwardly holding Harris' black handbag. "I'll have to show you how to carry it."

For 21/2 hours, Harris remained in the custody of marshals.

Then, at 12:30 p.m. Harris, hands cuffed behind her back, walked into the courtroom where Lyons already was seated at the defense table. Lyons' parishioners grew quiet when Harris entered, looking down and blinking. Harris sat directly behind Lyons, at a separate defense table where she was encircled by her four attorneys.

The pair did not acknowledge each other. Harris stared straight ahead. Lyons never looked back.

Bernice Edwards, another co-defendant in the case, did not appear in the courtroom on Monday. Edwards, whose bail already was set at $250,000 in her hometown of Milwaukee, will come to Tampa for an arraignment in the next few weeks, her attorney, Tony Black, said.

Harris' bail was a matter of debate Monday. Lawson, the prosecutor, said she faces 18 to 20 years in prison if convicted. For that reason, Lawson told the judge, Harris' bond should be set at $50,000 and secured with an asset.

But Peter Strianse, one of Harris' Nashville attorneys, argued that a secured bond was unnecessary. Harris voluntarily submitted to give handwriting samples to the FBI, Strianse said, and would give authorities her passport.

Lawson countered that Harris made false statements to banks to get a mortgage. "That's an indication of her trustworthiness," he said.

McCoun ordered Harris to put up $7,500 as security.


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