|Neither the Rev. Henry Lyons nor Bernice Edwards have made a mortgage
payment on the $700,000 home in Tierra Verde since March.
[Times files (1997): Mike Pease]
World Savings and Loan Association officials took steps Monday to foreclose on the $700,000 Tierra Verde home the National Baptist Convention USA Inc. president owns with former employee Bernice Edwards.
In March, Lyons missed his monthly mortgage payment and hasn't made one since, according to a complaint filed in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court.
Lyons owes World Savings $457,714. Thanks to late charges, interest, attorney's fees and other costs tied to the foreclosure, that's slightly more than the principal Lyons originally borrowed to buy the waterfront home in March 1996. Then, Lyons was expected to pay $2,583 a month.
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Internal Revenue Service officials already have filed liens against it to recover Edwards' old tax debts. So has one of her creditors. And, two weeks ago, as they indicted Lyons and Edwards on charges of money laundering, bank fraud and tax evasion, federal prosecutors announced intentions to seize the property, alleging it was purchased with the proceeds of criminal acts.
"I wasn't aware of that," World Savings' attorney, Robert L. Wunker, said Monday of the prosecutors' plans. Wunker said he conducted a title search of the property late last month before federal authorities had filed claims against it and several other homes. "I think the inevitable is that the property will be sold at judicial sale."
Along with Lyons and Edwards, the foreclosure complaint names Lyons' wife of 26 years, Deborah, among the defendants, even though Deborah Lyons is not listed on the deed to the house.
In fact, Mrs. Lyons told police officers one year ago, it was her discovery of the house -- and Lyons' co-ownership of it with Edwards -- that prompted her to set fires inside. The July 6, 1997, fires set off state and federal investigations into Lyons' financial dealings.
Although Lyons had listed himself as a single man on the World Savings loan application, Wunker said the company had to name Deborah Lyons in its foreclosure action because she may have an interest in the property "by virtue of her marriage."
"There's also the question of having an interest by virtue of possession of the property," he said. "Apparently she was in possession. I understand she started a fire there."
Adding to the confusion, the house is up for sale. The asking price: $749,000.
"We've had several people interested, that's all I can say," the listing agent, Pat Kelly of Coldwell Banker Residential, said Monday. Attorneys for Lyons did not comment on the foreclosure, but Tony Black, an attorney for Bernice Edwards, said plans for a house sale are on hold.
Federal prosecutors likely will file a motion to move the Pinellas foreclosure complaint into federal court, then delay it until Lyons and Edwards have their trials, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Christopher C. Sabella.
On Monday, federal prosecutors also agreed to allow the National Baptist Convention access to the organization's main bank account. As part of the cases against Lyons, Edwards and convention employee Brenda Harris, prosecutors made claims on property, seized cars and jewelry and froze dozens of bank accounts.
But convention leaders "presented a legitimate concern" that the "Unified Program Account" at an Ocala bank contains church money meant for operating expenses, Sabella said.
The convention's board of directors promised Lyons' name would be removed as a signatory on the account, Sabella said, so prosecutors agreed to reopen it. The convention submitted a letter, signed by NBC general secretary Roscoe Cooper, stating that Lyons' name was removed, Sabella said.
Lyons' attorney, Grady Irvin, dismissed as "ludicrous" any suggestion that the convention is distancing itself from Lyons and said he was encouraged by the decision. "I'm pleased the government saw it appropriate to not place the employees of the convention in a stranglehold by freezing what is now being used as the operating account of the convention to pay its bills and salaries."
A judge Monday also released the lead FBI agent's sworn statements in connection to the seizing of assets and freezing of bank accounts. They were statements prosecutors wanted sealed.
Agent Neil V. Palenzuela's 35-page affidavit offered a familiar picture of Lyons, Edwards and Harris, allegedly accepting thousands of dollars from major corporations, often based on phony or forged documents, then moving the money from account to account, from purchase to purchase.
The affidavit offered a first look at one of Lyons' most recent business deals. After the fire last year, Lyons had promised to sell a $135,000 1997 Mercedes-Benz he and Edwards bought in the name of his St. Petersburg church, Bethel Metropolitan Baptist.
This March, Lyons sold the church car to Forman Motors in West
Palm Beach for $93,000, Palenzuela said. The money was wire transferred
into a bank account belonging to Bethel Metropolitan Baptist on
March 3. A day later, Palenzuela said, a check for $60,000 was
drawn from that church account and deposited into a separate account
at Republic Bank: "Baptist Fund for Lyons."