Baptist leader's double life leads to charges of fraud

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WHEN DEBORAH Lyons was arrested and charged 18 months ago with setting fire to a luxury house in the Florida resort of St Petersburg, the case was treated as an inexplicably destructive act by a woman of hitherto good repute.

Prayers were said for her in black churches throughout the United States, and sympathy went out to her husband, the Rev Henry Lyons, one of the most prominent black churchman in the country.

Within months, however, an investigationturned up a money trail leading back to Mr Lyons who was - and still is - president of the National Baptist Convention, the largest organisation of black churches in the US.

Yesterday, Mr Lyons, 56, went on trial, charged with multiple counts of fraud accounting for millions of dollars. It transpired that while her husband was away from home Deborah Lyons, who was living in modest circumstances as befitted the wife of a churchman, had found the deeds to the St Petersburg house in Mr Lyons' briefcase.

Not only did it show that he owned the $700,000 (pounds 433,000) house, but that he owned it jointly with another woman, Bernice Edwards, the public relations director of the National Baptist Convention.

As Mrs Lyons admitted in court last year, she broke into the house, threw her husband's suits around and lit a series of fires. She was sentenced to five years' probation for arson.

At the time, Mrs Lyons blamed her frenzy on a drink problem, and Mr Lyons said that his relationship with Ms Edwards was a purely business arrangement. But within two months, police found that not only had Mr Lyons kept a mistress, but they had maintained an extravagant lifestyle funded by money that had been donated to the church.

He was confirmed to have an illegitimate child and reports abounded of involvements with other women and lavish gifts.

Among the specific charges against Mr Lyons is that he misappropriated more than $200,000 donated by the Jewish organisation B'nai B'rith, which had been earmarked for the rebuilding black churches that had been burnt down.

According to prosecutors, Mr Lyons used the money to buy the St Petersburg house, a Mercedes car and jewellery.

Bernice Edwards is charged jointly with him and had an early plea for a separate trial turned down.

Until his arrest last February, Mr Lyons had denied any criminal intent, but admitted wrongdoing. A year ago, he admitted: "I have sinned. I am a preacher who has made serious errors in judgement."

While many argued that his continuation in office gave the Convention a bad name, others admired him for his charismatic preaching and his business sense. He is credited by members with reducing the Convention's indebtedness from $6m to $4m during his four year tenure.

If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison.