Ronald Poppo had a hard-knock life on the streets.
A homeless drinker who had been shot once and arrested two dozen times, he is fighting for his life at Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center after an 18-minute cannibal attack that cost him most of his face. At 65, he’s been homeless for almost four decades.
His hardscrabble existence took a volatile turn Saturday afternoon, when he encountered Rudy Eugene, a 31-year-old former North Miami Beach High School football player who liked to smoke marijuana and hoped to start his own mobile car-wash business.
Eugene died in a hail of police bullets when he mauled Poppo in a sudden and unprovoked attack. Eugene will be forever remembered as the Miami Zombie.
“Rudy was not a face-eating zombie monster,” said his high school friend Victoria Forte. “The Rudy we know was a nice gentleman with a warm smile, and funny.”
It’s unclear what brought the two unlikely characters together on the MacArthur Causeway. Poppo was known for hanging out on and under the bridge there; Eugene liked to go to South Beach for Memorial Day Urban Beach Week.
A Miami Herald video showed Eugene on the Miami end of the MacArthur Causeway shortly before 2 p.m. Saturday, naked and in an apparent drug-fueled rage. He straddled Poppo, punched him, tore off his clothes and gnawed at his face as at least four cyclists rode by and the newspaper’s surveillance camera rolled.
The carnage ended at 2:13 p.m., when Miami Police officer Jose Ramirez ordered Eugene to stop, and then shot him at least five times.
Eugene’s friends were stunned to learn of his involvement in the bizarre case. They described him as funny and friendly, with a particularly radiant smile. He was normal, and did not suffer from any mental illnesses, they said.
“He wasn’t homeless. He had a place to stay. He had a car, and he worked,” said Erica Smith, a close friend and former roommate of Eugene’s. “He had his ups and downs, but he was not an aggressive person. He was really sweet and giving.”
Smith said Eugene was down on his luck about five years ago with a string of arrests and a broken marriage, but recently was getting his life back together.
In 2004, North Miami Beach Police had to use a Taser to subdue him during a domestic dispute.
“He did smoke, I’m not going to lie about that,” Smith said. “Someone must have given him something really bad. A few days ago he told my brother that he was really depressed and didn’t want to live anymore. He was a guy who just wanted a family and someone to love him.”
Toxicology reports on Eugene’s body have not been completed. A Miami police union official speculated that he must have been high on LSD or some other drug that causes psychosis as the body overheats. As doctors and pundits hypothesized about what could have caused an ordinary man to do something so extreme, police said no tangible evidence to explain it had emerged.
Eugene graduated from North Miami Beach High in 2000. He lived off and on with his mother and friends and did an assortment of odd jobs, from selling CDs to working at McDonald’s and telemarketing. He last worked washing cars at an automobile dealership, Smith said.
Lately, he spoke of buying his own mobile car-wash business. His own late ’90s model Chevrolet Caprice was discovered Tuesday at an impound lot, after it was towed from South Beach.
“He was always looking for ways to make money. Not necessarily illegal, but sometimes he got in trouble with it,” said his lifelong friend, Daniel Ruiz. “But for Rudy to do something that graphic, that aggressive, that violent, that gruesome — that’s what’s really troubling us. Rudy? Really? Rudy? Naw.”
He said Eugene liked to freestyle rap and listen to music.
“He had his little problems, but nothing too dramatic,” Ruiz said. “He was sane.”
Forte, his North Miami Beach High classmate, said other members of the class of 2000 want to spread the word that Eugene was better known for his stint playing defensive end in high school, doing generous favors for friends and cheering them up on bad days.
Cassandra Metayer agreed.
“This is not his character,” said Metayer, who went to middle school and high school with Eugene. “This type of behavior is very unexpected. He was a good person, a true friend. He was a nice, outgoing ready-to-help-anybody kind of guy. I’m not just saying that; he really was that person.”
Metayer said Eugene, the son of Haitian immigrants, grew up in North Miami Beach. In 2005, he married Metayer’s cousin, Jenny Ductant, but they divorced two years later.
Metayer said the two split because they had taken different paths in life, particularly as Ductant continued her education.
The couple’s 2007 divorce record shows he had no income, and his assets included $2 cash and $50 for a cell phone. His former wife agreed to take on the couple’s debt, which included the power and phone bills.
She told one local TV station that he had a violent past, but when reached by phone, declined to discuss it with The Herald. “I don’t want to talk about it,” Ductant said.
“He loved his family, loved his friends,” Metayer said. “It had to be drugs; someone in their right mind doesn’t do that. This is not the act of a normal person. It has to be someone under the influence.”
Despite his friends’ insistence that Eugene had never had any problems, records show he had repeated brushes with the law.
Florida Department of Law Enforcement records show Eugene was arrested by Miami Beach police on a battery charge when he was 16, but the case was dropped.
Records show he was arrested seven other times over five years. Court records show that one was for misdemeanor battery, one was for vending near a school, one was for trespassing and four involved marijuana.
His last arrest was in September 2009. In January, the charge was dropped.
A string of arrests is something he had in common with his victim, who had a record showing at least 24 arrests dating back to 1978. Records show Ronald Poppo, born in New York, lived for a time in the 1980s in New Orleans.
Most of his arrests were for drinking in public and trespassing, but he also had a handful of felony cases for burglary, assault and resisting arrest.
The record suggests that he’s been on the streets a long time: In 1983, he was arrested for sleeping in public.
Court records also show that Poppo was treated for a gunshot wound at Jackson Memorial Hospital in January 1976. He listed his address at the time as a Salvation Army facility on Flagler Street.
His last mug shot showed him with a white beard and the tanned face of a man who spent a lot of time on the streets.
“I called him Kenny Rogers,” said Emory Robert Spencer, who last saw Poppo having dinner Friday at the Miami Rescue Mission.
A man leaving supper at the Miami Rescue Mission on Tuesday evening who identified himself only as Rafael said he’d known Poppo for about 15 years, and that he stayed on Watson Island.
Another man staying in a utility trailer on Watson Island said Poppo generally stayed on the north side of Jungle Island, near a public restroom building west of the Miami Outboard Club.
"He never bothered nobody,’’ said Rafael, exactly what Emory Spencer had to say. Miami Herald staff writers Nadege Greene, Melissa Sanchez, Amy Sherman, David Ovalle, Carli Teproff, Manny Navarro andDaniela Guzman contributed to this report. A previous version of this article misstated the name of the officer who shot and killed Eugene. The officer's name is Jose Ramirez.