Almost a Saint

People were drawn to him and his inspiring devotion to the downtrodden. They wanted to help, to give him money. And they did -- right up to the day he vanished.

Eventually he set up shop in Lansing. "I came into Lansing, man, like a hurricane," he continues. "I was notorious. I was selling kilos at Michigan State. They thought they were some pimps, but they weren't. I showed them how to do it." In fact he did so well for himself that before long he was commanding a lucrative drugs-and-prostitution operation.

In that line of business there are few peaceful mergers, and Moncrief ran afoul of a competitor. The inevitable confrontation ended in violence. "I was running a dope house on the ho stroll. I went to use the bathroom and I heard him come in, but my gun was on the table in the living room," he says, breezily skipping over the details of how he wrested control of the gun from his rival. "I did everything I told him I was going to do. I said, 'I'm going to shoot you in the head and in the heart.'"

Prosecutors couldn't disprove Moncrief's claim of self-defense, so he avoided a murder charge and pleaded guilty to manslaughter. The sentence: fifteen years in prison. He did the entire fifteen, and along the way was brought together again with Ronald Crawford. He also found religion and a new mentor. Moncrief joined the Moorish Science Temple of America, a Muslim sect, and met one of its adherents, an inmate named Nathaniel Kemp, who was doing life for a 1976 murder. Moncrief says Kemp changed his life: "He taught me to better myself and go to school and do something worthwhile. I took the skills I'm blessed with and evolved into a different person -- who I always wanted to be." He began reading more and playing chess incessantly. He says hours spent talking with Kemp about religion led to a determined commitment: Once he got out of prison, he'd devote himself to charitable work.

Illustration by Elliot Golden

But what happened when Moncrief was released in January 2001 is a mystery. He provides a rambling chronicle about living in Sarasota for a while and getting a girl pregnant, then pimping in Key West before being picked up on a minor drug charge in Miami, after which he was released and found his way to Miami Beach. But there are no records of his arrest in Miami-Dade County, and he has offered at least one other version, in which he comes straight to the Beach because he wanted to see the ocean after spending all that time in prison.

By all accounts, though, the summer of 2003 found Moncrief homeless in South Beach. He began spending his days on Lincoln Road, unrolling a portable chess mat, setting up the pieces, and taking on all comers. Rabbi Yitzhee Zweig challenged Moncrief to a game. "Every morning I take a walk on Lincoln Road," Zweig says, "and I saw him there playing chess and I just started watching. We played a game and began talking." (Over the course of several matches, he beat Moncrief just once.)

Moncrief told the rabbi about his life and his plan to help other homeless people on Miami Beach. Zweig said Moncrief was lucky he had an opportunity to turn his life around: "I told him, 'Look, not a lot of people get a second chance.'"

Zweig gave Moncrief money to buy a uniform so he could bus tables at Doraku, a Japanese restaurant near Lincoln Road's Regal cinema. (Moncrief had interviewed for the job but couldn't afford new black pants and a white shirt.) He also set up Moncrief with Andrew Restler, the manager of a Michigan Avenue apartment building Zweig owned. Restler eventually let him stay in an apartment for free. "Initially I wasn't going to give him a place," Restler recounts. "Then I went to a feeding where he was giving out food to the homeless. I decided I don't do enough for other people, so I decided to help."

Restler, a bearish man with the world-weary manner befitting a Miami Beach apartment manager, was convinced that Moncrief was on a righteous crusade. "I saw him feed 40 or 50 people at Flamingo Park," he says. "When I went down there with him, he was like a savior to those people."

So now Moncrief had a home, a job, and a cause. He printed up business cards, proclaiming himself to be the president and founder of Mother Nature's Kitchen (motto: "Feeding humanity one day at a time"). The address on the card read, "1944 Michigan Ave., Suite 9." One night his scheme took a quantum leap forward. Football legend Jim Brown was dining at Doraku, and you'd better believe Moncrief knew not to pass up such a chance. He'd met half the people he knew on the Beach the old-fashioned way: He simply walked up and introduced himself. With Brown he took the same approach and was, he says, well received.

Moncrief volunteered for Brown's Amer-I-Can organization, a group that promotes job training for prison inmates and gang members. An improbable bond formed between the two. "Lewis could be down with anyone," observes Daniel Seghi, a vice president of Mother Nature's Kitchen. "I've been with him to Jim Brown's condominium about ten times. He and Lewis were hanging out every night for a while."

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