'Their creed was greed,' prosecutor says in closing

Henry Lyons and Bernice Edwards are compared to "Bonnie and Clyde" as their trial winds down.

St. Petersburg Times, February 24, 1999
By William R. Levesque

LARGO -- They used their word and the trust placed in them the way a gangster uses a gun to rob a bank, prosecutors say.

Baptist leader Henry J. Lyons and his former aide Bernice Edwards preyed on corporations eager to do business with the National Baptist Convention USA and its supposed 8.5-million members, prosecutors say.

"They actually became the Bonnie and Clyde of the National Baptist Convention," Assistant State Attorney Jim Hellickson said during closing arguments in the pair's state racketeering trial Tuesday. "Instead of using a gun to rob their victims, they used a pen and they used their word."

If he had to choose a name for the case, Hellickson said, "I think I'd call it "Their Creed was Greed.' "

With that, closing arguments began on the 25th day of trial and are expected to continue today, when defense lawyers will make their own arguments. For jurors who have sat on one of the longest-running criminal trials in Pinellas County history, the end is now in sight.

Six jurors may begin deliberations as early as Thursday morning.

Hellickson reviewed for jurors weeks of testimony and exhibits that, for some, may have been long forgotten in a trial now entering its sixth week.

He told them that Lyons, president of the convention, and Edwards, its former public relations director, "raced" to swindle more than $4-million from corporations. They did it, he said, because Lyons knew he would not be president forever.

"The race in this case was a race for these two people to get to the bank as quickly as possible," Hellickson said."They put a For Sale sign up on the NBC and sold their soul for a few pieces of silver."

Writing "National Baptist Convention" on a large pad displayed to jurors, Hellickson crossed out the last seven letters of convention, leaving "National Baptist Con."

"They used the NBC," he said, "to con corporate victims out of their money."

Lyons and Edwards used the convention "as a facade, as a front, as a mechanism" to bilk corporations who trusted the St. Petersburg minister in a way they would not trust anyone else in the business world, Hellickson said.

Again and again, corporate officers testified that they were struck by Lyons' stature and thought him an honest and trustworthy business partner.

"That trust . . . allowed him to get away with so much that other people would never have been able to get away with in dealing with these corporations," Hellickson said. "He convinced them to deal, and deal they did."

Corporations didn't know that Edwards was a convicted embezzler, he said.

Lyons and Edwards entered partnerships with companies that wanted to market everything from life insurance to cemetery plots. The pair sold them convention membership lists that did not exist, he said. Even Edwards admitted that on the stand, he reminded jurors.

At one point, he said, Edwards admitted on the stand that the Globe Accident and Life Insurance Co. bought a list that did not exist for $600,000 in 1995.

They stole money, Hellickson said, to lead a lavish life that included luxury homes, jewelry and expensive automobiles.

"Everything they did was to get as much money as possible . . . all the time trying to hide what they were doing."

Lyons' attorneys say the convention's dealings with corporations amounted to business deals gone bad -- matters for a civil, not a criminal, court.

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