Holy Hustler

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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!"


Pastor Vincent Spann

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.

Soon he was transported to Stuttgart, Germany, where he spent three years in a MASH unit, practicing wartime deployment. By all accounts, he excelled in the military. Weathered awards now tacked to his office wall document his success; among them is the Army Achievement Medal, the second-highest honor a peacetime soldier can receive. After eight years, Spann made sergeant first class.

Back then, there was another side to the service. The base was Valhalla for substance experimentation. "You could get high in any room" in the barracks, he says. "Whenever I got my paycheck, I'd go out and buy something. I tried cocaine, snorting heroin, dropping acid. But mostly, I liked to smoke my little weed and drink some cognac."

Then his habit turned on him. In spring 1983, he was stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia. Broke and jonesing for weed one night, he says, he joined forces with a like-minded crony, Cpl. Jeffrey Holmes, who worked in the base's armory. As the sun set, the two loaded up — Spann with a .45-caliber pistol and Holmes with an AK-47. They hopped into a green Ford Grenada and began scouting for potential victims.

Just after 7:30 p.m., they pulled up next to two men sitting in a car idling at a stoplight. Holmes jumped out, wielding his weapon. Spann was still behind the wheel — cowering in fear, he says — when his partner returned with $27 and a Timex watch. The pair bought a bag of pot and lit up.

Their victims, actually two off-duty soldiers, contacted military police. Holmes was quickly identified and arrested. Soon Spann was in custody too. But before he admitted his crime and was assigned to 18 months in an Army retraining brigade, he found God — with the help of a Billy Graham televised crusade. "I was literally born again," he says. "It's better than sex."

After serving his time, he headed back to Miami with a new mission: to become a preacher. He also met his new son for the first time. Christopher, born while Dad was at Fort Riley, Kansas, was now more than a year old.

In 1987, Spann started his own outfit, Spic & Spann Tiling, which he ran from his home in North Dade. He experimented with religions, jumping from Lutheranism to Baptism. But Spann didn't dig serene piety. He aimed to battle the Devil. "I wanted the power; I wanted the real thing," he says, his voice rising. "I wanted to do what Jesus did."

He found a Pentecostal chapel on NW 17th Avenue where possessions, exorcisms, and speaking in tongues were weekly events. Soon Spann was ordained as a pastor and began harnessing the supernatural at the church, to packed pews. "I was casting out demons from the crowd," he recalls wistfully. "I would stretch my hands at people and they were falling out without my hand touching them."

Around the same time, his family crumbled. In 1988, he divorced Crystal. Two of the children stayed with their mother, while 10-year-old Vincent Jr., a troubled kid who would become a cocaine addict, split time between his father and grandmother.

In 1993, Spann opened a high-ceilinged, lemon-painted church near NW 12th Avenue and 54th Street. His fiery sermons at Power, Faith, and Deliverance attracted society's dregs. "I didn't draw doctors and lawyers and teachers," he says. "I drew prostitutes, addicts, robbers, thieves, and murderers."

Spann welcomed the troubled flock. He began allowing wandering addicts to crash for the night in his two-bedroom Liberty City home. Soon 18 transients were sprawled from his living room couches to the kitchen floor. He set a curfew and other simple rules, "and then my mind just flipped with it," he recalls. "I thought, Why don't I do this like I did in the Army?"

Within a couple of months, he was leading his uniformed squatters on 6 a.m. marches through empty streets. His thwarted Army career was just preparation for this — his real destiny.

Standing at a pulpit in a tiny chapel on the ground floor of Basic Training Ministry at 6820 NW 17th Ave., Spann lifts his eyelids after minutes of repose. Today he's wearing a chocolate-colored linen suit with a sergeant's four stars on the lapel. Sherry Spann — known around here as the First Lady, a quietly elegant woman wearing tattooed-on eyebrows and an African robe — buries her gaze in a Bible on her lap.

Spann turns to two of his sons; 11-year-old Elijah is sitting at a drum set, and 13-year-old Joshua is waiting behind a keyboard. "Let me get a little bit of 'This Must Be Heaven,'" he coolly directs them, "and I'll go ahead and bring this word."

The clean synth of their melody booms from a speaker set at the room's center. Spann begins singing in a strong, clear voice: "Where am I? Where the streets are made of gold... Gates are made of pearl..."

It's a song Spann wrote, and his congregation knows it well. Voices from the packed pews provide the chorus: "This must be Heaven..."

"There's no more pain!" Spann punctuates.

"This must be heaven..."

"No more dying!"

At this moment, it's difficult to believe this building was once one of Liberty City's most notorious dens of vice and violence — and that many of these crooning church-goers were among its sellers and buyers.

Two of them are Darryl and Leonard Flowers, middle-age brothers who have spent their lives hustling to scrape together enough cash to buy some crack or a few beers. Until Spann took over the building, they knew it as a crumbling dump where dark hallways lured fix-seekers to unexpected doom. "This was a place where you didn't always come out the same way you went in," Leonard says. "You go in looking for a five-dollar ho, but you might get a gun in your face or a knife in your gut."

Another is Ulysses Mathis, an ex-convict who faced a murder charge in the 1970s after he used an oak stick to bludgeon an old friend to death in an argument over five bucks. He pleaded self-defense and was acquitted. For years, he sold crack in a first-floor apartment here. "I was just the man that collects the money and gives it to the next," he says. "I never knew where the money went."

Then there's Diane Tate, who stays at the Basic Training Ministry with her two young children while her husband Anthony serves the end of a nine-month stretch for selling coke.

And there's one-toothed Ulysses "Seadog" Rhaney, age 53, whose rap sheet includes grand theft auto, armed robbery, and felony assault, and whose body bears a constellation of bullet wounds. "I get to drinking and I'm ready to fight," he says matter-of-factly before pulling up his shirt to reveal a surgical equator across his stomach. "The doctors pulled [my] guts out... I've been shot nine times — in my mouth, my hands, my wrist, leg, thigh, lungs. I've been hit by a police car and went through the windshield."

Forty recovering substance abusers with similar stories live at the camouflage-painted compound that is Basic Training. They are packed two or three to a room in apartments and maintain a military appearance — olive-color shirts with ID tags and military bars, neatly trimmed hair, and scrubbed faces. The only requirement for admission is that they have no current arrest warrants and agree to abstain from drugs and alcohol. They pay $100 a month for room and board only if they're on welfare or have a job. If they're without income, as most are, they pay nothing.

Spann manages this arrangement through a sort of miracle of economics — or pure chicanery.

In 2006, he contacted the owners of the dilapidated building and offered to renovate the place for free in return for allowing Basic Training to occupy it for a year. Around that time, the bank overseeing the building's mortgage foreclosed, and Spann simply stayed.

Buckets full of water are shuttled here from Spann's NW 70th Street house in lieu of actual plumbing. He has never paid the water bill. The same goes for electricity, but utility workers haven't come out to cut the lights — which Spann sees as a holy omission.

The food they eat is donated, most of it from Publix, and Spann has so much surplus that his soldiers sometimes take to the streets handing out dozens of day-old pastries. The furniture and bedding are scavenged or similarly gifted — the Fontainebleau Hotel recently gave him 29 cots, 1,000 towels, and 400 bathrobes. His clients sell the robes on the street for $10 each.

And while the clients may not pay, they earn their keep with Spann's labor model, which falls somewhere between commune, boot camp, and gulag.

New recruits aren't allowed off the grounds for 30 days. They wake at 5:30 every morning and sit groggily through prayer while Spann inspects their rooms. He tolerates only blade-sharp bedding folds and immaculate floors. At 9 a.m., they line up at a nearby abandoned field, where they loudly salute Jesus and are each given their "detail" for the day. These include sawing boards in a workroom, painting walls, and clearing debris from an unused room to make space for six more cots.

The commune hums with activity. Clients hustle past each other, completing their tasks to keep the place running. On a recent afternoon, the smell of cooking dinner — beef stroganoff — hangs in the air. Spann proudly tours his domain. "It's like we're in a jungle with nothing," he says, "and we're finding different ways to survive."

His Liberty City empire will soon extend farther than this building. This past summer, he began renting nine rundown neighborhood houses from a development group that, he says, is glad to have him take them off its hands in this dismal market. The rent is a bargain, $600 per house, and Spann has bought some free months by using client labor to renovate them.

One such house on NW 67th Street has all the feng shui of a bomb shelter. Fifteen beds clog every foot of floor in the blue one-bedroom structure. Despite this, the house is an improvement over the abandoned homes on either side of it.

Spann's plan is to fill this and the other eight houses with tenants looking for a night's shelter. Basic Training clients will guard the doors at all times, making sure these floppers are in by 10 p.m. and out, with all of their belongings, the next morning. That way the properties won't become crack houses. Spann hopes to welcome his first dwellers sometime this month and to begin making money before he must pay rent to the developer.

If all of this client labor sounds like indentured servitude, you won't find Spann's colony complaining. They adore him with a filial reverence — and many credit the pastor with saving their lives. "When my old friends from the corner see me, they say, 'Is that you?'" says Mathis, the guy who once took an oak stick to a pal's head. Since wandering into Basic Training nine months ago, he has kicked crack and alcohol, his abscessed skin has cleared, and he has gained 30 pounds. "The pastor has showed me I don't need to open a can of Budweiser in the morning or go around the corner and get some dope. I tell him: 'If you want me to leave this place, you might have to call the police.'"

From tax-cheating Jim Bakker to cash-embezzling Richard Roberts to prostitute connoisseur Ted Haggard, there's no shortage of evangelists for whom the word of God and the rule of law don't mix. And in his odyssey from dishonorable discharge to addict apostle, Pastor Spann has earned his place as our more tepid entry into this tradition of holy scofflaws.

For starters, Spann at one point kept two wives. After a two-year marriage to Bernice ended in his second divorce in 1994, he headed to Trinidad for a brief "crusade" — preaching and healing at ramshackle churches. That's when a pastor there introduced him to Sherry, a docile 21-year-old Trinidadian in the market for a husband. "They told me this woman would make a terrific wife for me," Spann says.

Days later, Spann made the near-stranger his third bride. He soon returned to Miami and she followed five months later. In 1995, Joshua was born. Elijah came three years later.

Meanwhile, Spann perfected the regimen of his rehab ministry while maintaining the principle that God's work should not be hampered by a light bill — a notion with a history of being unappreciated by the electric company.

In fact, he has been sued 11 times in Miami-Dade County. Associated Uniform Rentals filed litigation when he failed to pay for his soldiers' garb. A private waste company took him to court when he didn't pay for his church's garbage disposal. BellSouth Advertising chased him for not ponying up more than $14,000 for listing Spic & Spann in the Yellow Pages.

Spann is only vaguely apologetic. "If somebody says I screwed them, I probably did. I'm not proud of it," he says. "I've been sued, evicted. I've gone back on agreements I've had with people. It's been a struggle to survive."

In the late 1990s, Basic Training became an itinerant operation, bouncing between Overtown locations, with a brief stop in Opa-locka, as Spann clashed with the concept of paying rent. In March 1998, he faced eviction for failing to keep up with his $2,500 monthly rent at an Overtown warehouse he had converted into a church and living quarters.

That's when a faith-strengthening miracle hit: Rambo bailed him out. As his operation, by then called Basic Training, grew to house more than 90 recovering addicts, it had gained a small amount of local fame. Its impending doom made the pages of the Miami Herald and Miami Times. Good Morning America seized on the heartstrings-tugging tale and ran a segment. Sylvester Stallone, who then lived in Miami and had a well-known interest in both the underdog and the military, caught wind of Basic Training's plight and felt compelled to help. He bought the rights to Spann's life story for $20,000. Apparently it was more of a gift than a purchase. Stallone has yet to put Spann's life on film.

But the pastor, who never met Stallone, reached new heights of obstinacy when he didn't pay the back rent. In February 1999, Basic Training was evicted.

The ministry survived. Spann made a fan of Arthur Teele, the unhinged commissioner who would later commit suicide in the Herald's lobby. As the Stallone story circulated through the media, Teele pushed forward a grant that could potentially give Basic Training $230,000 in community development cash.

Spann mangled the deal. He ignored the city's requests for paperwork, leaving it unclear how he would spend the money. And officials bristled at the news that Spann was passing bad checks to pay rent. "This is a bad idea," City Manager Donald Warshaw ruminated as the grant fell apart. "We would be throwing good money after bad."

The pastor impatiently lashed out at what he now saw as the city's interference, calling Miami's leaders racist. "They're all a bunch of crooked politicians," he declared to the Herald. "I really don't want the city's money anymore." (Warshaw, by the way, later pleaded guilty to misusing $70,000 in public funds.)

Meanwhile, Spann's personal life entered the realm of the bizarre. In 1998, Spann wed another woman, Diane, while he was still married to Sherry. For two years, he "lived two lives," he says, splitting time between his two wives. "People will say, 'Pastor Spann's a bad man,' when they find this out, but I don't care what they think. I was confused."

The pressure was intense. At one point, he quit the church and fled to Georgia to live alone with Diane. But in 2001, the weirdness came to an end when he divorced her. He had finally realized that bigamy is "dead wrong."

As he was figuring all of this out, his first two sons fell prey to demons both personal and natural to the hazardous hoods in which they were raised. Vincent Jr. was diagnosed as a violent schizophrenic, who had punched holes in his mother Crystal's walls looking for police cameras. After serving a yearlong prison term for peddling coke, he was sent up for three years for an inexplicable crime — breaking into an Overtown home to steal a jar of change and a pair of gloves.

Another son, Christopher, had become a six-foot, 300-pound thug often busted for petty theft, says Spann. In February 2003, at age 19, Christopher and a friend armed with a .45-caliber pistol attempted to carjack a woman who turned out to be a probation officer — a foolhardy caper uncannily similar to his father's Army crime. The teen was sentenced to more than five years in prison.

Spann has no guilt over his sons' troubles. "The street," he says, an invincible entity, claimed them. He adds that he set up the recently released Vincent Jr. with a job at a barbershop. And although he doesn't visit Christopher in jail, he says, "I send him money in his account, and I write him. I give him fatherly advice. I tell him you have to live with the consequences of your actions."

Fannie and Alton Lindsey are folk of Vincent Spann's ilk. The Miami Lakes couple are devout Baptists in their 60s. Alton is a Vietnam veteran who suffers from posttraumatic stress disorder and a bad heart that has required multiple surgeries.

Their common ground allowed Spann to prey on them, says Fannie. "I'm hurt because he's a preacher," she says while sitting in her sparsely decorated, immaculate living room. "He goes around carrying a Bible. He uses the name of the Lord."

In May 2006, Hurricane Wilma damaged the floor of the Lindseys' house. Looking for a repairman, Fannie found Spic & Spann's listing in the phone book, advertising the business as licensed and insured.

Spann showed her photos of skillfully completed past jobs and gave her a dirt-cheap estimate: $2,000 for all the repairs. She had expected to pay at least $7,000. When the holy leader told her his workers were all "deacons and ministers" at his church, it sealed the deal.

But when six of Spann's men showed up the next day, they didn't look like deacons. They were ragged, tired-looking, and strangely ravenous, stealing cake and sodas from the fridge, she says. Worse, they seemed completely untrained and damaged more than they fixed. She produces photos documenting their disastrous results: haphazardly laid tiles, globs of plaster splattered on previously clean walls, an expensive chest of drawers clumsily damaged. They poured excess grout into the gutters behind her house, clogging the plumbing. That mistake was made obscene when one of the workers filled her toilet with "boo-boo galore," she laments.

Spann was present only by phone. By the time his workers left, they had done $11,000 worth of damage, according to one estimate.

The pastor admits he used his rehabbing addicts to do the Lindseys' floors, but insists the homeowners refused his offer to correctly re-lay the tile.

Spann, however, has been unable to ignore the Lindseys' claim, as he has done with so many lawsuits before. Because he fraudulently advertised his company as licensed, prosecutors in 2007 charged him with third-degree grand theft — a felony — for taking the Lindseys' money.

After Fannie testified in court as to the shoddy work, Spann pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to three years' probation instead of the possible five years in prison, with a caveat — $11,000 in damages to be paid to the Lindseys by 2010.

True to form, Spann hasn't kept pace with the payments. Fannie says she has received $3,500, half of what she should have by now — and gets a check only when she calls Spann's probation officer to complain.

It's two days before the New Year, and prosecutors have called Spann to Judge William Thomas's downtown Miami courtroom and urged he be sent to jail for nonpayment. But Thomas lets Spann remain free, over Fannie Lindsey's irate protests, while sternly reminding him the debt must be paid. The consummate showman does the judge one better, promising him he will have it squared away within three months.

"That's how I am," he says simply as he strides back onto the street, banishing bewilderment as to why he would make such a pledge. "Besides, if I don't pay it in three months, I'll still have until 2010, right?"

Spann doesn't believe he'll be sent to jail. After all, he's doing God's work. The judge, he says, set the "stage for a miracle."

"At any moment, the bank could force me out [of the ministry]," he declares back in the makeshift office of his scavenged property, where magazine photos of Bentleys are taped to concrete walls. "At any moment, Florida Power & Light could cut off the electricity. This could all come crashing down tomorrow. It used to drive me crazy, but I don't worry about it anymore. The worst that could happen is the worst that could happen, and it hasn't."

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