Holy Hustler

Pastor Spann will save Liberty City's soul one addict at a time — if he can stay out of jail.

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 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.

He gives recovering substance abusers their daily "details."
Jacqueline Carini
He gives recovering substance abusers their daily "details."
The flock listens to a fiery sermon.
Jacqueline Carini
The flock listens to a fiery sermon.

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. 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, 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. 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.

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