The Lyons PresidencySEPT. 8, 1994: Lyons is elected to a five-year term as president of the National Baptist Convention USA.

OCT. 7, 1994: Lyons opens the Baptist Builder Fund at United Bank in St. Petersburg. He alone controls this convention account, where he will deposit much of the proceeds from his deals. Convention leaders, including the chairman of the budget and finance committee, do not know the account exists. It is not listed in the convention's annual report or audit.

Bernice V. Edwards
Bernice V. Edwards

LATE 1994:
Lyons hires Bernice V. Edwards, one of his campaign aides, as corporate public relations director for the convention. Edwards, of Milwaukee, Wis., has a long history of debts, failed business endeavors and bankruptcies. A year before joining the convention, she pleaded guilty to embezzling $60,000 from a high school she started for at-risk students. Lyons will later say he didn't know about Edwards' past.

EARLY 1995: Lyons begins marketing the convention to corporations around the United States. The convention claims it includes 8.5-million members, a figure that would make it the largest black religious group in the country -- and therefore a prime target for corporations eager to reach African-American consumers. Lyons cites the figure to corporations selling credit cards, funeral services, insurance, phone service and automobiles. But the convention's own records suggest it has fewer than 1-million members.

APRIL 1995: In one of Lyons' many corporate deals, a Nashville bank advances $300,000 to the convention. The plan is to market the Union Planters Bank credit cards to convention members. The $300,000 loan is based on a resolution authorizing Lyons to accept the money, but the convention's general secretary, the Rev. Roscoe Cooper, will later say his signature on that April 17, 1995, resolution was forged. The Union Planters credit card deal will later collapse and the bank will not get its $300,000 back. It is the first time Cooper's signature is found to be forged on a convention document. It will not be the last.

Brenda Harris
Brenda Harris

The Struggle for
of Henry Lyons

The deacon's grandson

The making of a preacher

Sinner and saint:
The Georgia years

Becoming the man

The path to power

Lyons hires Brenda Harris, a California businesswoman, to be director of conventions for the National Baptist Convention. She soon moves to Nashville, home of the convention's national headquarters. Lyons co-signs her $1,500-a-month home lease and Harris provides the landlord a written guarantee from the convention that her rent will be paid. Later, she and Lyons will be linked romantically.

FALL 1995: In another corporate deal, Lyons endorses the Loewen Group, a white-owned cemetery and funeral home conglomerate, as the "death-care provider of choice" for convention members. In the next two years, the company will send Lyons $3.2-million in the belief that he is marketing funeral services to the convention. In fact, he spends much of the money on luxury items -- golf clubs, tires for his Mercedes, Brenda Harris' mortgage. State and federal prosecutors will later cite Loewen as Lyons' main victim.

OCT. 27, 1995: On a trip to Lake Tahoe, Edwards and Lyons buy a top-of-the-line "Emerald Suite" time-share condo worth $22,500. The deed lists both Lyons and Edwards as unmarried.

FEB. 11, 1996: Edwards selects a 5.56-carat diamond ring that costs $38,700 (including tax) at a St. Petersburg jewelry shop. She hands the jeweler a $10,000 down payment check from her room at the Don CeSar Beach Resort. The check is from the Baptist Builder Fund, Lyons' secret account. The balance is paid out of a Milwaukee account filled with more than $1-million in Loewen Group payments.

Home on Tierra Verde
The Tierra Verde house.
[Times files (1997)]
MARCH 1, 1996:
Lyons closes on a five-bedroom, $700,000 home on Tierra Verde. The same day, he adds Edwards' name to the deed, which lists him as a single man. Later, it is learned that $90,000 of the down payment came from the Baptist Builder Fund, Lyons' secret account in St. Petersburg. Another $136,000 of the down payment comes from the Milwaukee account holding the Loewen Group payments. To help secure the loan, the mortgage lender is given a one-year lease that commits the convention to pay Lyons' rent on the house. The lease carries the seal of the National Baptist Convention USA and what purports to be the signatures of convention chairman A.H. Newman and general secretary Roscoe Cooper. Later, the two leaders say they have never approved such a lease and know nothing about it.

APRIL 14, 1996: A check for $200,000 is deposited into the Baptist Builder Fund. The check comes from an account in New York City belonging to the Permanent Mission of Nigeria, that nation's diplomatic outpost here. Lyons will receive $150,000 more in the next 10 months. During this period, Lyons, who is not registered with the Justice Department as a foreign agent, vigorously lobbies Congress and the White House to soften opposition to the military regime of Gen. Sani Abacha. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are outraged when they learn that Lyons received money from the outlaw regime.

signaturesMAY 1996: Brenda Harris buys a house for $340,000 in Nashville, putting down $102,000. A National Baptist Convention letter, presented as a board resolution, says the Baptists will guarantee up to $300,000 in a house loan for Harris. The Jan. 23, 1996, resolution purportedly bears the signatures of Lyons and board members Roscoe Cooper and A.H. Newman, but the signatures of Cooper and Newman are obviously not their own. Lyons says Harris never used the convention guarantee to get her house, which she will put on the market in late 1997 for $429,000.

FALL 1996: The convention proposes to develop a 500-room hotel to be run by Hilton in Broward County. Lyons submits a letter guaranteeing he will fill 200,000 rooms a year with National Baptist Convention USA delegates, a promise echoed in a separate memo by E. Edward Jones, head of the National Baptist Convention of America, a different Baptist group. Jones denies writing the letter, or even knowing about the commitment. Ultimately the Broward County Commission agrees to go ahead with the hotel -- on the condition that Lyons and the National Baptist Convention USA are banished from the deal.

NOV. 29, 1996: A letter bearing Lyons' signature reports that Lyons has distributed more than $200,000 to half a dozen African-American churches that burned down during a rash of fires in the South. The New York-based Anti-Defamation League had collected the $244,500 from concerned Americans, then asked Lyons to distribute it to the neediest churches. Almost a year later, under attack, Lyons will acknowledge he handed out only $30,000 and withheld the remaining $214,500. Anti-Defamation League officials are stunned. Lyons' attorney sends the group a reimbursement check for $214,500. State prosecutors later charge Lyons with grand theft in connection with the incident.

FEB. 19, 1997: Bernice Edwards signs a contract to buy a $925,000 mansion on five acres in Charlotte, N.C. In mid-April, a new contract is submitted, this one signed by Lyons and Edwards, but neither of them shows up for the closing. A second closing, scheduled for July, is canceled. Lyons says he has no knowledge of the house, though his signature is on the sales contract and he and Edwards are listed on a $2,000 check used as earnest money. The check came from United Bank in St. Petersburg, where Lyons maintains his Baptist Builder Fund.

MARCH 1997: Lyons takes possession of a $135,000, 1997 Mercedes-Benz that is registered in the name of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church and Edwards. Because it was registered in the church's name, no sales tax was paid.

JULY 1997: Lyons leads a church group, including Edwards, to Nigeria. They stay in luxury hotels and ride limousines at government expense.

Deborah Lyons
Deborah Lyons

JULY 6, 1997:
With Lyons in Nigeria, Deborah Lyons goes to the house in Tierra Verde. Convinced her husband is having an affair with Edwards, she tells investigators, she breaks lamps, rips stuffing from pillows and sets several fires, causing $30,000 in damage. Driving home, she crashes her car into a palm tree. She is charged with arson and burglary. A day later, she changes her story: She set the fires by accident, and her husband has not betrayed her.

JULY 25, 1997: Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe subpoenas records of the Baptist Builder Fund, signaling an escalation of McCabe's inquiry into Lyons' dealings.

AUG. 21, 1997: U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson announces that his Tampa office is launching an investigation into Lyons.

SEPT. 3, 1997: Lyons remains president of the convention after a dramatic floor fight during the group's annual meeting in Denver.

SEPT. 5, 1997: The Loewen Group tells Lyons in a letter that it is ending its business relationship with the convention. The Canadian conglomerate says it is turning over documents connected to its deal with Lyons to investigators in Florida.

OCT. 20, 1997: Deborah Lyons pleads guilty to arson of the Tierra Verde house, saying she had been "drinking and under stress at the time."

DEC. 3, 1997: Lyons apologizes for unspecified mistakes and says he is ready to face criminal charges. Meanwhile, a federal grand jury begins meeting weekly in Tampa to hear evidence against Lyons.

FEB. 25, 1998: Pinellas-Pasco prosecutors charge Lyons with racketeering and grand theft, alleging that he used fraud and extortion to steal millions of dollars. They also charge Bernice Edwards with racketeering.

MARCH 16, 1998: Lyons and Edwards plead innocent to the state charges. Says Lyons: "Your honor, I plead not guilty on every charge."

JULY 2, 1998: Lyons, Edwards and Harris are charged in a 61-count federal indictment, on charges ranging from tax evasion to money laundering to bank fraud. U.S. Attorney Charles Wilson announces he is attempting to seize bank accounts, cars, houses and 39 pieces of jewelry owned by the defendants.

SEPTEMBER 1998: At the convention's annual meeting in Kansas City, Lyons maintains his hold on the presidency -- and announces he will seek re-election in 1999.

-- Compiled by Times staff  

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