Lyons Adjusting to Prison Life Former Baptist Leader Shelves Books, Absorbed in Bible Study

Article excerpt

ST. PETERSBURG -- From the pulpit of Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church, the Rev. Henry J. Lyons preached the word of the Lord for 27 years.

And for nearly five years, he was president of one of the nation's largest black church groups, the National Baptist Convention USA.

Now, after being convicted on state charges of racketeering and grand theft, the 57-year-old minister wears prison blues and shares half of an open dormitory with 69 other inmates, engaging in intense Bible study.

A repentant, more humble Lyons has emerged since he began his 5 1/2-year state sentence, his lawyers said. It is this man who now awaits sentencing Friday on federal charges of tax evasion and bank fraud.

"He's reading the Bible and reading prayer every day . . . trying to find peace for himself," said attorney Jeff Brown. "He's been doing an awful lot of work reading about Paul . . . and some of the disciples who have spent time in prison."

Lyons was convicted Feb. 27 in state court of bilking nearly $4 million from corporations trying to do business with the Baptist convention, and of stealing almost $250,000 donated by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith for burned black churches in the South.

He pleaded guilty in federal court March 17 to five related counts of evading taxes, engaging in fraudulent activities and lying to officials. In return, federal prosecutors dropped 49 other charges, including extortion, conspiracy and money laundering.

Lyons is scheduled to appear before U.S. District Judge Henry Lee Adams in Tampa. The federal charges carry a total possible sentence of 75 years and heavy fines. But under sentencing guidelines that take into account the crime, the impact on its victims and Lyons' background, the minister likely faces a sentence between six and eight years, said Brown, Lyons' attorney for the federal case.

The minister is serving his state sentence at Lowell Correctional Institution-Men's Unit, a prison about 9 miles north of Ocala. …