Almost a Saint
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."
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.
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."
Moncrief tailors his persona to fit the occasion, whether he's at Brown's Portofino condo or cruising the sidewalks of South Beach. Within weeks of obtaining the job at Doraku he'd enlisted volunteers from all strata of Beach life. "Lewis and I were standing in line at the bathroom at a club," says Lea Knowles, an event coordinator and vice president for Mother Nature's Kitchen. "He asked me what I was doing the next day. I said I was volunteering at Camillus House, and he said, 'No, no, I need your help.'" Knowles began working with Moncrief, collecting food from cooperating restaurants and distributing it to the homeless in Flamingo Park. "I think Lewis has the most confidence of anyone I've ever met," she offers. "Just going over there and feeding people myself has changed my personality. He's got an awesome vision. Now it's just a matter of raising money."
Lewis also signed up FIU student Tina Young. "We did a feeding in August at 73rd and Collins, and people just came out of the woodwork," Young says. "People are hungry out there, but the city puts up all this red tape, makes it hard to feed them. Lewis has the energy and determination to just go out and do it." Young became a mainstay of Moncrief's organization, helping with feedings but also acting as a chauffeur for the CEO rides and letting him use her cell phone.
Young and Knowles weren't the only people impressed by Moncrief's "awesome vision." Seghi, a 24-year-old Beach resident and aspiring stockbroker, was attracted to the ex-convict's inspiration for helping the needy. "I've been living in Miami Beach since I was a kid and I wanted to be a part of something real," Seghi says. "Miami Beach is such a superficial place. He's coming from someplace totally real. If this guy's doing that much work, what about a guy like me who's had everything? What should I be doing?"
Moncrief presented a reality Seghi had never seen, regaling him with tales about his past, conjuring up visions of a gangsta-rap fantasy come true. Between trips to Jim Brown's condo and pitching in at Mother Nature's Kitchen (Moncrief named him executive vice president), Seghi and Moncrief spent a lot of time together. "I can say that in the last eight or nine months, he's been my best friend," Seghi says. "I'm a popular guy, I have a lot of friends, but Lewis and I, even though we're from opposite worlds, we're much closer."
Rounding out the volunteers were two itinerant performance artists, Malik Shabazz and Tony Gee. Moncrief knew them from his time on the streets and finagled them a job doing landscaping work at his apartment building. "He helped me out, so I helped him out with his organization," says Shabazz, a spoken-word poet who emcees open-mike nights in Fort Lauderdale. Moncrief wasn't as enigmatic to Shabazz, a South Bronx native, as he may have been to Seghi or Young: "I know a little bit about the streets, where everybody has their own hustle. I had some questions about a lot of the assertions Lewis was making. I knew some of it was a hustle, but I decided to trust him. I mean, he talked a lot, but I also judged by his actions, and he was out there doing things, feeding people."
As Moncrief & Co. continued their Beach feedings in summer 2003, city hall began to take notice. "We got a report that this was going on and we were a little worried about health issues," says city spokeswoman Janet Lopez. "We tried to get him in touch with local organizations so maybe he could channel his efforts through them -- people like the Dade County Homeless Trust and Camillus House."
Moncrief was not impressed. "I'm trying to tell these people that we need a homeless shelter on the Beach and they think I'm crazy," he says with a laugh. "They keep getting their little money for their little organizations, but I don't see them out feeding people on the Beach. And it's not hard to do -- just ask some restaurants to donate some food and go give it to hungry people. They couldn't even do that."
Despite his success in mobilizing volunteers, things weren't moving quickly enough for Moncrief. He was scoping out Beach properties for a shelter, familiarizing himself with local zoning laws, and reading up on how to operate a nonprofit corporation, but he had little money. He and Seghi decided on a fundraiser, a musical performance and art auction that would raise tens of thousands of dollars and establish Mother Nature's Kitchen as a legitimate operation. Seghi would solicit willing artists (his father, Tom Seghi, is a well-known painter), and Moncrief, along with Tony Gee and Malik Shabazz, would round up musicians and performance artists.
As plans for the fundraiser intensified, Moncrief made two decisions: He quit his job at Doraku so he could channel his considerable energies toward Mother Nature's Kitchen, and he began living entirely on what he called "luck and friendship." He also decided that the Delano was the place for the fundraiser. It was a lofty goal; the hotel wanted $20,000 up front.
Rabbi Zweig, who had made the occasional donation to Moncrief, was displeased to hear he'd quit his job at Doraku. "I was unhappy he didn't have a steady job," Zweig says. "I told him he's got to survive before he starts raising money. I told him: 'Lewis, I'm in the fundraising business. It's tough.'" But Moncrief proceeded apace, working every angle, one of which was chilling with Jim Brown at the Clevelander, where he wrangled an introduction to Dolphins star running back Ricky Williams. "These football players, man, they have money," Moncrief says, "and they'll give it away and just write it off."
While striving to tap into the serious cash, Moncrief went door to door soliciting donations from restaurants and stores on South Beach, as well as from private individuals. Tennis instructor Marcelo Moreno was among those who encountered Moncrief. "I first ran into Lewis when I went to see some jazz at the Van Dyke Café or the Palms Hotel," he says. "Anyway, I saw him around a couple of times and he told me about his organization. I gave him a little money." Miami Beach chanteuse Nicole Henry was also approached by Moncrief; she says he asked her about performing at the fundraiser but never got back to her with details. Moncrief's friends and acquaintances persevered in aiding the cause, whether by donating to his organization or by helping Moncrief personally.
Says Andrew Restler: "I've given him money here and there."
Adds Daniel Seghi: "I've handed over a lot of money and a lot of time."
It's unclear exactly how much money Moncrief raised. He told at least one person he was "closing the deal" with the Delano the first week of November, but no contract was signed. (Delano managers acknowledge meeting with Moncrief but won't discuss how close they came to a deal.) Tina Young, however, doesn't think Moncrief ever raised much money -- probably less than $10,000.
One thing is certain: Moncrief left Miami Beach in November. "He said he had some issues he had to take care of -- something about a woman," says Seghi. "I've been e-mailing him but there's no response. But he could come back tomorrow." Seghi is understandably chagrined. "I've put a lot of time into our work," he laments. And money? "Big time."
Seghi won't put a dollar amount on his contributions to Mother Nature's Kitchen, but he definitely sounds more skeptical than he did in October, when he said, "I totally believe he's legit. In my heart and soul, I've asked myself if I'm getting conned. If I get screwed, so be it, but I doubt I will."
Rabbi Zweig, who warned Moncrief about the value of second chances, said this shortly before Moncrief's disappearance: "The question is, when are people going to get tired of him? I mean, you can't just become a better con man. You have to become a better man."
Young hasn't looked for Moncrief since he disappeared. "By the time he left, Lewis was becoming very demanding," she reports. "He wanted me to drop my whole life for him." Young says Moncrief was increasingly frustrated by the glacial pace of fundraising. "He was hoping that since it was for a charity, the Delano wouldn't require a down payment, but they did. And I think he was having a hard time coming up with the money, which is frustrating. Anyway, Lewis is all about action."
Shabazz, meanwhile, still has the job and the apartment Moncrief helped him secure. He was always wary, especially of Moncrief's constant affirmations of close friendship: "He was cool, and him and me were cool, but he was always making it seem like more than that. I have a few true friends, but it's a little artificial when someone you've only known for a while claims to be your closest friend."
Shabazz was only mildly surprised to learn that Moncrief had disappeared. "I actually stopped answering the door when he came over," he says. "As a matter of fact, I still don't have electric power because of some money I loaned him that he never paid back. He was a good guy, but he was like a drifter -- he used people up and moved on."
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