By Michael E. Miller
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On a sun-blasted Tuesday morning in the last weeks of 2008, four people pedal camouflage-painted bikes toward NW 61st Street and 13th Place, one of the busiest intersections for Liberty City's booming drug trade. Donald Vamper, a jovial 46-year-old wearing a camo bandanna Tupac-style; his cornrow-tressed wife Sylvia; and Chris and Ezekiel Robinson, two scrawny 20-something brothers, wear green uniform shirts adorned with military stripes. They move at a leisurely pace in a loose approximation of the stealth formation — all equidistant from one another, two on each side of the garbage-strewn streets.
Vincent Spann, a 51-year-old man of heavy build but perfect posture, tails them at a distance in his hunter-green Ford Excursion. He maintains a clean-shaven scalp and an arching sliver of a mustache. Large black nostrils exposed by an upturned nose accent a pug-like face. He too wears Army-style garb, including a green baseball cap ornamented with a general's stars.
As Spann parks to watch, the others periodically dismount and fall to their knees before boarded-up properties. They douse the pavement with bottles of olive oil. They chant, moving down the block: "We claim this property... We claim this area... We claim this neighborhood for the glory of Jesus Christ!"
The bike detail is inspired by Deuteronomy, a biblical passage in which anointment with oil chases away demons and transfers property to holy hands. Spann, an ordained preacher, hopes to acquire three properties on this block. Two pink apartment buildings and a butter-colored one are now drug dens, their windows covered in wood slabs and doors flung open. His bicyclists have a full schedule: After this, they'll target a nearby abandoned barbecue pit that's been overtaken by aging drunks and crackheads.
After wresting these lairs from the fiends and corner boys, Spann plans to layer them with cots and rent each bed to Liberty City's massive homeless population for around $15 a night. It's a scheme to pump cash into his Basic Training Ministry, a barracks-like building a dozen blocks away. For two decades, he has housed, fed, clothed, and cured hundreds of recovering addicts — like today's bicyclists — for little or no charge.
To Spann, the anointment is kind of a metaphorical down payment to the buildings' owners. In recent days, he has taken more than nine neighborhood houses — and will soon welcome his first nightly floppers — without the aid of hard cash. His motto: "I'm living on faith!"
It's an apt description. Spann has to be one of ghetto Miami's most complex characters: He's a disgraced former drill sergeant who has gained national prominence for rescuing legions of addicts using military discipline, supernatural faith, and flimflam. He's a two-time felon, four-time husband, and six-time father who has dabbled in bigamy. His bulimic distaste for paying bills has provoked a horde of angry lenders and clients who have littered his mailboxes with civil subpoenas. He has for two decades artfully dodged demise — touched by paranormal miracles such as a fat check from Sylvester Stallone.
But the good reverend's luck may have finally soured. His scheming might land him behind bars.
Vincent Graylen Spann was born in 1957, the youngest of four sons in a Savannah, Georgia family. His dad Leroy was a Baptist deacon and more than 20 years older than wife Sadie. Leroy left the family when Vincent was still a baby. "My mother said my father was the greatest thing to happen to her," Spann says. "She pushed him away. She was too young."
Three years later, the family moved to Overtown, which was then — as now — carpet-bombed by poverty. Sadie was a diligent mother, sternly yanking her boys through a dirt-poor upbringing. She welcomed any troubled kid in need of a bed into her beige NW 12th Street duplex, which was already bursting with two brothers per bedroom.
Vincent soon became the prepubescent Vito Corleone of the neighborhood, helming heists that yielded booty no more valuable than a few cases of beer. "We had other boys that were the stronger arm," remembers Ernest "Silk" Milton, a lifelong friend, "but Vince was the social leader of our neighborhood."
As he bounced through eight Miami schools, Spann earned A's and B's with one goal in mind: a military career. He craved the power of rank. As co-captain of the drill team at Miami Jackson Senior High, he donned a uniform and led an acne-battling brigade.
Pastor Spann, who chooses hyperbole over modesty any day, describes his adolescent self as an unstoppable mix of a young General Schwarzkopf and a pre-bleach Michael Jackson. "You had to know how to spin a rifle, and you had to know how to dance," he recalls of the drill team requirements. "I was such a good dancer that I would go to school dances and people would stop and watch me. I was probably one of the best in Miami."
So in 1977, after graduating from Miami Jackson, he gyrated into Uncle Sam's open arms and was trained as an Army medic and drill sergeant. He brought along his new wife Crystal, an Overtown sweetheart he had met at a teen talent show. The next year, they had their first two children: daughter Karhonda and son Vincent Jr.; both were born in Fort Hood, Texas.