Nearly a year after filing, renowned St. Petersburg pastor Manuel Sykes is still fighting a bitter divorce battle with his wife of 10 years, complete with accusations of eviction and plots to “take a hit out on him” for insurance money, among other things.
Sykes, 60, has been a leading political and cultural figure in St. Petersburg, after rising to prominence more than a quarter-century ago through his pulpit at Bethel Community Baptist Church, one of the city’s foremost African-American institutions.
After struggling with a bout of prostate cancer, Sykes admitted in 2007 he fathered a child out of wedlock with Sheila Wright, a single parent from West Palm Beach. Their son, Saint Christopher Sykes, was born just months before Sykes married Bahamas native Cleopatra Raquel Fowler, now 44.
Rev. Sykes has several other children from a prior marriage.
Even though Sykes officially retired from Bethel Community in 2016 – after serving 24 years as pastor – many believe he still plays a role in the church.
Weeks after announcing his retirement, Manuel and Cleopatra Sykes quietly filed for divorce Oct. 21. In court filings, the pastor described himself as a disabled single parent willing to give up his career, home in businesses — including the Academy for Love and Learning Preschool — “in order to expedite and obtain a peaceful divorce.”
However, Rev. Sykes says it is Cleopatra who should give alimony: “She is much younger, healthier, stronger and wealthier with no dependents.”
While records suggest the couple had separated for some time, Rev. Sykes accuses Cleopatra of changing the locks on the home, evicting him and his young son in early 2014.
Court documents show Cleopatra Sykes arguing Rev. Sykes has financial resources to provide her with alimony, calling for him to be “generous when dividing assets.” She also says Rev. Sykes should take out a life-insurance policy, naming her as beneficiary.
In response, Rev. Sykes counters that Cleopatra has “selfishly … taken care of herself and two adult sons … with habits and behaviors — that once caused endless financial hardships and mental stress for the Husband.” He also says taking out an insurance policy on himself – naming Cleopatra as the beneficiary – would be like “taking out a hit” on himself.
Sykes writes: “He fears she is capable of staging a situation like suicide to collect, or would have family members harm him. The much younger Wife is not a legal citizen, and the Husband strongly believes she never loved him but, married to obtain American citizenship and wealth; because, once she received her ‘Green Card’ the neglect, abandonment, and lack of love and respect for him and his son began.”
“The Husband is at loss for words the Wife would take more after being given and offered so much,” Rev. Sykes adds.
As a former president of the St. Petersburg NAACP, Sykes is also co-founder of the Faith and Action for Strength Together, and has often considered running for elected office.
Sykes filed to run in 2014 as a Democrat against Republican Rep. David Jolly for Florida’s 13th Congressional District. But when Pinellas Democratic Executive Committee Chair Mark Hanisee warned Sykes he was “persona non-grata,” Sykes dropped his bid. The Democrats never entered a serious candidate to challenge Jolly’s re-election effort, which he won easily.
Sykes later publicly changed his party registration from Democrat to Republican, but refused to endorse Gov. Rick Scott for re-election (as many in the local GOP expected), choosing to stay loyal to his opponent, former Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who was running as a Democrat for his old job.
Explaining his loyalty, Sykes said Crist remained by his side during a difficult episode when the NAACP ordered the St. Petersburg chapter to cease operations after discovering irregularities in fiscal practices and programming. At the time, Sykes was president of the chapter.
In 2016, Sykes announced a bid for House District 70, a solidly Democratic seat. However, Sykes failed to qualify for the ballot when he neglected to sign a required disclosure form. Democrats Wengay Newton, C.J. Czaia and Dan Florini did make the ballot, as did Republican Cori Fournier. Newton ultimately won the seat.
As for his continuing divorce, in May, Rev. Sykes removed attorney Sema Yildirim from the case, suggesting Yildirim overcharged him and is delaying action to maximize her fees.
As of Aug. 8, Sykes has been representing himself; the case has yet to be resolved.
The ongoing divorce is not the only recent legal issue involving Rev. Sykes.
On Aug. 1, records show Sykes petitioned the court for a restraining order against a relative, Curtis Elliott Sykes. In court papers, he said Curtis threatened his life and was able to carry it out, citing his time served in prison for killing another uncle. Sykes also claimed Curtis is a threat to Sykes’ family and parishioners, accusing him of drug use.