By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
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By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
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By Kyle Swenson
Lewis Moncrief beams from behind his secondhand desk like a CEO in a Brickell high-rise. His apartment, which doubles as his office and the headquarters for his nonprofit organization Mother Nature's Kitchen, is furnished with items scrounged from sidewalks and thrift stores. To his left a battered filing system with about 25 mailboxes sits next to a small television. Adorning the desk is a cheap plastic globe. Behind the desk a bed sheet serving as a curtain sways in a South Beach breeze on a perfect October afternoon. A worn copy of The Dialogues of Plato sits on the windowsill. Moncrief's smile is pure confidence.
Moncrief addresses a reporter, who is precariously perched on a rolling chair between the desk and a beat-up mattress on which sprawl a couple of Moncrief's "associates." He outlines his strategy for achieving the goal of Mother Nature's Kitchen: to build Miami Beach's first homeless shelter. Already he's recruited willing soldiers for the cause, filed for nonprofit tax status, and begun looking for properties in areas zoned for transitional housing. Now Moncrief is putting together a fundraiser at the Delano Hotel, at which he hopes to rake in tens of thousands of dollars, enough to get his ambitious project up and running.
When it comes time for the hard questions (such as, Why would people entrust their money to an ex-con who has spent 15 of his 36 years behind bars?), Moncrief's grin only grows. He's the man with the answers.
"You're not trusting me with the money," he explains. "It's going into an open escrow account. Anyway, I'm just a visionary who's putting it all together. I'm calling on experienced people to do the detail work." Still smiling, he radiates purpose and intensity, a man on a mission.
If he seems a little overconfident, it's worth noting that he has nothing to lose. He never has. Using only what he calls his "God-given gifts" (relentless energy, intelligence, and charm), he has managed, in a few short months over the summer and fall of 2003, to find free lodging, gather a group of followers, and raise enough money to lend credibility to his vision.
You have to sit with Moncrief for a while, listen to him talk, in order to understand how he has attracted people to his unlikely cause. For one thing, he manages to fill any room, though he's not a physically big man -- probably five-six, maybe 160 pounds. He has presence. For another, you can't help but like him, even when he's running through a monologue that alternates between earnest declarations of his selfless humanitarian spirit, and thug-life stories that usually culminate in the grisly demise of at least one of Moncrief's enemies. When he concludes a narrative, your head spins. Was he slyly grinning when he told the one about single-handedly inciting and then quelling a prison riot? Or facing down the Aryan Nation badass in a one-on-one fight arranged by prison guards? Was he letting you know it was a lie?
As unsettling as some of these yarns may be, it's easy to be captivated by Moncrief. Rabbi Yitzhee Zweig, Moncrief's first benefactor in Miami, puts it this way: "He's got some personality."
Moncrief's stories often feature his father. Or father figure, really, because he says his mother was a prostitute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and he's not sure who his father is. But he tells a good one about the pimp he idolized as a child, and with whom he was later reunited in jail. "He had that star power, that pull in the neighborhood," Moncrief says of Ronald Crawford. "He was like a father to me. But when I was in juvenile detention he shot up, like, five cops at the courthouse while he was trying to bail out one of his hoes."
Some story. So over-the-top it couldn't be true. And besides, wasn't Moncrief's impish "Now here's some bullshit!" grin on display when he let fly with this fable?
But it is true. Michigan Department of Corrections records show a Ronald Crawford doing life for three counts of assault with intent to commit murder, one count of armed robbery, and two counts of murder in the first degree. A January 9, 1981, Associated Press story datelined Grand Rapids tells the tale, stripped of Moncrief's embellishment perhaps, but woven from the same fabric of crime and violence as his life. Other records confirm Moncrief's mother's convictions for possession and solicitation, and his own time in prison for manslaughter.
First arrested at age twelve, Moncrief was a full-blown drug dealer by his early teens. "I have a mother who's a prostitute and a heroin addict, so I do what I want," he recalls. "I'm twelve years old and I'm out on the street and hustling. I went to my grandmother's house and stole her gun. I shot some people with it." That led to two years of incarceration. When he got out, his mother had disappeared and Crawford was in jail. Moncrief immediately began selling drugs and pimping again. "I like to be in control," he says flatly. "In my community, that's all I could control."