Lyons begins 5 1/2-year term on state charges

The former president of the National Baptist Convention is in the Pinellas jail awaiting transfer to a state prison.

St. Petersburg Times, April 1, 1999
By William R. Levesque and David Barstow

LARGO -- The Rev. Henry J. Lyons, the fallen Baptist leader whose voice once boomed from the pulpit on the struggles between good and evil, stood in tears before a judge Wednesday and apologized for the misdeeds that led him to his dreaded day of reckoning.

"I cannot shake the feeling that I let so many people down," Lyons said at his sentencing on state racketeering and grand theft convictions. "I just cannot rid myself of that."

His attorneys chronicled Lyons' life of charity and asked for leniency. They asked that he remain free until his sentencing on federal charges. They asked that he serve his time in a federal penitentiary instead of a less forgiving state prison.

Lyons, choked with tears and his voice a whisper, looked to Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Susan Schaeffer, and said, "Your honor, I ask for mercy."

But the judge told him in a stern voice, "It is time to pay the piper, Dr. Lyons."

Schaeffer then sentenced the St. Petersburg minister, former president of the National Baptist Convention USA, to 51/2 years in state prison and ordered him immediately into custody, ending any hope, his attorneys say, that he could serve his time in a minimum-security federal "camp."

The judge also ordered him to pay nearly $2.5-million in restitution to the corporations who once eagerly courted him and his convention's supposed 8.5-million members.

His attorneys say he is penniless and will never be able to pay. They say the restitution will be imposed as a lien. Should Lyons ever come into unexpected windfall he must pay what he owes but otherwise would face no penalty if he didn't.

Under state guidelines, Schaeffer could have sentenced Lyons from about three to eight years in prison.

Schaeffer, referring to Lyons' repeated statements in the last month that he was guilty of mistakes and misjudgments, said: "I know you call it mistakes, and I know you call it errors in judgment. But we know it's crimes because I don't put people in prison for mistakes."

Lyons, 57, showed no emotion as the judge imposed sentence and sometimes nodded in seeming agreement as Schaeffer lectured him about his crimes. Behind him, members of his Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church who stood by him through 20 months of scandal and revelation hung their heads or dabbed tears from their eyes.

Four of the six jurors who convicted Lyons in February also watched the sentencing. They said they were relieved at the closure.

"It kind of closes it for me when he actually got up and admitted yes, he was guilty," juror Myra McShane said. "That helped me because it made me feel I did the right thing. Now there's no doubts that I might have accused somebody of something that wasn't right."

As bailiffs prepared to take him into the custody he fought to avoid through a 29-day trial, Lyons asked bailiffs for permission to say goodbye to his wife, Deborah, and daughter, Stephanie.

They hugged and kissed and whispered to each other.

Mrs. Lyons appeared dazed as bailiffs escorted her husband out of view and to the county jail. "Where is he?" she asked repeatedly. "I can't go?"

For Lyons, it was the end of a stunning fall from grace and influence that began in July 1997 with the fire set by his wife at the $700,000 Tierra Verde house Lyons purchased with another woman, Bernice Edwards.

The simple preacher, who lived luxuriously with the millions he got from trading on his convention's good name, swapped a dark business suit and tie for standard jailhouse blues with "INMATE" emblazoned across his back. The minister who once spared no expense on gourmet feasts with acquitted co-defendant Edwards sat alone in a cell his first night behind bars eating a simple meal offered all county jail inmates: chicken patties, mashed potatoes, green beans and cake.

Looking despondent and depressed, Lyons was kept separate from the general jail population in a medical wing so he could be monitored, jail officials said. Though books were available to pass the time, Lyons asked for nothing.

He is expected to be transferred to the state prison system within 24 hours.

His first stop will be a prison in Lake Butler, near Orlando, where all new inmates are taken for evaluation. Within two or three weeks, he will be assigned to another prison where he probably will spend his entire sentence.

"He'll do fine in prison," said the Rev. Aaron Munford of Dade City, a staunch Lyons' supporter and friend. "He'll do just like Paul did -- he'll preach in prison. He's locked up but he's free to preach."

Lyons appeared more contrite and remorseful as he addressed Schaeffer during the two-hour sentencing hearing than in recent interviews with 20/20 and the Today show. He said he most regretted his conviction on charges he pocketed most of the $244,500 given to him by the Anti-Defamation League to rebuild burned black churches.

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

Both Lyons and his wife apologized to Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney Bernie McCabe for comments they had made in the last year suggesting his investigation of Lyons' crimes was racially motivated.

"I got a lot of bad advice and I lashed out," Lyons said.

Lyons also disavowed an advertisement published in the St. Petersburg Times that was taken out by one of his most ardent supporters, the Rev. J.J. Barfield III. The ad, which Barfield said Lyons approved, said Lyons was convicted in a racist state by a racist jury.

The charge particularly rankled Schaeffer, who lectured Lyons, "It offends me terribly when people who were not here . . . take it upon themselves to try to put unnecessary unrest in our community."

Lyons said he disagreed with the ad and denied approving it. Lyons assured the judge he did not believe the case had anything to do with the color of his skin.

"As far as I'm concerned, it had to do with the right and the wrong, and the wrong that I've done, the mistakes that I've made," the minister said. "It had nothing to do with race. . . . I don't agree with (the ad) and I don't uphold it one bit."

McCabe told the judge he doubted Lyons' sincerity and said Lyons' apology to him was made simply to curry favor with the court.

"Early on in this case . . . allegations of racism were bandied about easily," he said. "They seemed to slip off their tongues without much effort. . . . What I'm suggesting, judge, is that the words he speaks are the words he thinks will serve him best at the moment."

Five longtime friends of Lyons addressed Schaeffer about the minister's good deeds, about the selfless ways he shaped and improved their lives and the lives of countless others.

Cody Clark, who has known Lyons for 18 years, said, "He's wounded, but he's not worthless and he certainly has not led a worthless life."

Schaeffer also said she read more than 115 letters from Lyons' supporters, many of whom asked the judge to grant Lyons probation so he could continue to help others. But the judge said she was bound by the law, which mandated a prison term.

The judge said she felt sorry for the followers whose letters so clearly demonstrated they found it inconceivable that Lyons could be guilty of such serious crimes.

"They see the kind and caring and considerate and giving man that I believe you are," she said.

Deborah Lyons, the devoted wife whose arson in Tierra Verde led to her husband's eventual undoing, pleaded for the judge's mercy.

"If you can find it in your heart to look not at Dr. Lyons in the last three or four years, but look at the good that he brings with himself," she said. "Dr. Lyons got caught up -- I'll be the first one to admit that -- he got caught up and did some things. But he is very remorseful."

The judge didn't give Mrs. Lyons the leniency she was hoping for, but neither did she treat Lyons as a criminal beyond redemption.

"I've learned a lot about you. I've learned to respect you," Schaeffer told Lyons. "You are now going to be punished for your crimes, which I do not respect. When you've paid the price for those and you get out, I think you and I could have a good chat. I'd look forward to that."

Lyons earlier this month pleaded guilty to five charges of tax evasion and fraud in federal court and faces a sentence of 70 to 87 months under guidelines. Lyons' attorneys hope a federal judge on June 18 will impose a sentence concurrent with the state term. But because Lyons will already be in state prison, the federal Bureau of Prisons has said it won't allow him to serve a concurrent sentence in a federal facility, said Jeff Brown, Lyons' attorney in the federal case. If the federal sentence is longer than 51/2 years, Lyons would move to federal prison when his state time is up.

Juror Christina Burris said she doesn't care where Lyons serves his prison sentence.

"I think his real punishment," she said, "is going to come from God."

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