'Time to pay the piper' for preacher convicted of grand theft

CNN News, March 31, 1999

CLEARWATER, Florida (CNN) -- The Rev. Henry Lyons, former head of the National Baptist Convention, was sentenced Wednesday to 5 1/2 years in prison for his convictions last month on state charges of racketeering and grand theft.

Lyons, 57, had been one of the most influential black religious leaders in the United States, overseeing one of the largest church organizations of African-Americans.

Four members of his congregation pleaded with Pinellas County Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer to give Lyons a lenient sentence.

"I was a crack addict. He never turned away from me. He's been my inspiration," Carol McCarty told Schaeffer.

Rosa Lee Moore, 95, said Lyons had been the church's best minister since she joined in 1919. "I love him," she said.

Lyons' wife, Deborah, who triggered the investigation in 1997 when she set fire to a waterfront home he owned with his alleged mistress, asked the court to recognize the good deeds he had done.

"He gives even now, with all the trouble that he's in," she said.

Sobbing Lyons begs for mercy

And then a weeping Lyons himself addressed the judge.

He apologized particularly for the theft of almost $250,000 from the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, money intended to rebuild burned churches.

"It stinks in God's nostrils, and I know it stinks in the law's nostrils, and it stinks to me," Lyons told the judge.

"I ask the court, I ask America, and I ask the black people to forgive me, because I believe it will haunt me the rest of my life," Lyons said, breaking into sobs as he asked for mercy.

The judge told him she felt sorry for his followers, but "it's time to pay the piper, Dr. Lyons," and she ordered him to begin serving his sentence immediately.

Second sentencing date on federal charges

Lyons was convicted in February of swindling more than $4 million from companies that wanted to market life insurance, credit cards and cemetery plots to his convention members.

Prosecutors said Lyons padded the convention's mailing list with names randomly selected from phone books across the country. Even a grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan was on the list.

Schaeffer ordered Lyons to pay $2.5 million in restitution to the companies who bought his phony mailing lists and to pay $97,000 for the cost of the state probe into his dealings.

Lyons and his alleged mistress, convention publicist Bernice Edwards, were accused of spending much of the ill-gotten money on a lavish lifestyle, including fancy cars, jewelry and a pricey waterfront home.

Edwards was acquitted on state charges, but she pleaded guilty in federal court to tax evasion and will be sentenced September 13.

A few weeks after Lyons was convicted in state court, he resigned as head of the National Baptist Convention.

He pleaded guilty to federal charges of tax evasion, fraudulent activities and lying to officials. His sentencing on those charges is set for June 18.

Correspondent Pat Neal contributed to this report.

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