AP Photo/Willie J. Allen Jr., Pool (2003)
The Rev. Henry J. Lyons preaches at the First Baptist Institutional Church in Lakeland in November 2003, shortly after being released from prison.

Almost 25 years ago, the Rev. Henry Lyons rose from pastor of a St. Petersburg church to president of the nation's largest black religious organization. Then he fell hard. In 1999, he was sent to prison after being found guilty of using fraud and extortion to steal millions of dollars. Now, a Times investigation reveals that he has found a new way to pocket money that doesn't belong to him.


Henry Lyons timeline

Sept. 8, 1994

Henry J. Lyons, longtime pastor at Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, is elected to a five-year term as president of the National Baptist Convention USA, the nation’s largest black religious organization.

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 various 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.

Late 1994

Lyons hires Bernice V. Edwards 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 later said he didn’t know about Edwards’ past.

Early 1995

Lyons begins marketing the convention to U.S. corporations eager to reach African-American consumers. The list includes companies selling credit cards, funeral services, insurance, phone service and automobiles.

September 1995

Lyons hires Brenda Harris, a California businesswoman, to be director of conventions for the National Baptist Convention. Lyons co-signs her $1,500-a-month home lease. Later, she and Lyons will be linked romantically.

Fall 1995

In a new 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 at a St. Petersburg jewelry shop. She pays the $10,000 down payment with a check 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.

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. Another $136,000 of the down payment comes from the account holding the Loewen Group payments.

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 in Nigeria.

May 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.

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 arson 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 acknowledged he handed out only $30,000 and withheld the remaining $214,500. Anti-Defamation League officials are stunned. State prosecutors later charge Lyons with grand theft in connection with the incident.

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.

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 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.

February 27, 1999

A Pinellas County jury finds Lyons guilty of the state charges. Edwards is found not guilty.

March 17, 1999

Lyons pleads guilty to reduced federal charges. He is sentenced to four years on the federal crimes, to run concurrently with his state sentence of five years. Edwards pleads guilty to two counts of federal income tax evasion. Prosecutors drop 25 additional charges.

Jan. 22, 2000

Brenda Harris pleads guilty to reduced charges

March 30, 2003

Deborah and Henry Lyons divorce.

May 5, 2003

Edwards dies in federal prison.

Sept. 6, 2003

Henry Lyons out on work release, gives first interview

Nov. 30, 2003

Henry Lyons is released from prison.

March 2004

Lyons is hired as interim pastor of New Salem Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa.

April 4, 2007

Garnering only 306 of the 1,012 votes cast, Lyons loses his bid to become president of the Florida General Baptist Convention.

January 2008

Lyons becomes a candidate for president of the National Baptist Convention USA and begins campaigning for September’s election in Memphis.

September 11, 2009

Lyons loses bid for National Baptist Convention USA presidency.

July 2012

New Salem Missionary Baptist Church, which made Lyons its pastor after he left prison, files for bankruptcy protection.

Feb. 2, 2015

A pre-dawn fire breaks out at New Salem Missionary Baptist. No one is injured, but the roof and virtually the entire interior of the church is destroyed. Damage is estimated at $400,000.

June 15, 2017

After accusing Lyons of misappropriating church funds for his personal benefit, church leaders at New Salem vote to remove him as pastor. Lyons dismisses the charges, saying they come from a disgruntled faction of church members.

June 19, 2017

An FBI agent meets with church elders to discuss the allegations.

July 7, 2017

A months-long Tampa Bay Times investigation reveals a pattern of Lyons orchestrating transactions that shifts money out of New Salem accounts and into secret accounts under his personal control.

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