Ruth Charles could not find a Haitian church in Miami to hold a funeral for her son, Rudy Eugene.
The brutal details of his attack on a homeless man, the roaring headlines, the whispers of Vodou or demonic possession, all conspired against Charles, who simply wanted to bury her son with a proper church service and then return to a quiet, anonymous life with a fiancé and two younger sons.
The first church said no, followed by the second. The third said yes then backed out. Same for the fourth church.
The news of Eugene’s death on Memorial Day weekend was already too well known. He was shot to death by Miami police as he crouched over Ronald Poppo’s limp body, naked and growling, chewing off chunks of the man’s face. It took several bullets fired by a stunned police officer to stop him. At 31, the son who had carried a Bible, quoted scripture and worn a four-inch cross on a chain around his neck had become something unrecognizable, known across the nation as the Miami zombie.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Two weeks after Eugene died, a funeral home chapel agreed to hold a service. His mother shuffled into the chapel, sank into a front pew and quietly cried throughout the hourlong service.
“I felt so much frustration. I was angry,” said Charles, 57, though she would not name the churches who had turned her down. “They were members of my Haitian community. They turned their back on me.”
Yet faith remains a recurring theme in the story of Eugene’s life — and in his horrifying death. It is why he evangelized, led a Bible study for friends and had recently been looking for a church home. It is what sent his mother door to door, looking for a church that would have her son’s funeral. It is why police found verses ripped from his Bible scattered across the MacArthur Causeway a few feet from his body. And, perhaps, it is what helps people understand what happened that afternoon.
“Religion and culture are playing a huge role in this story. And because this is very much a story that makes no sense, religion is being used as a framework for understanding,’’ says Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, a University of Miami associate professor of religious studies. “People are using their belief of evil spirits, of dark and light, to try to explain what happened that day.’’
Charles’ fiancé, Raymond Leo, who was with Charles each time a church said no, said she put on a brave face in public but crumbled behind closed doors, overwhelmed by grief and rejection.
“When you’re a Christian, you want the funeral to be in the church,’’ he said. “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.’’
Fast cars, sports and marijuana
Before Rudy Eugene became infamous, he was a fairly ordinary guy — he liked sports, fast cars, action movies. But even those closest to him say Eugene was introspective and private. Now they are left wondering if that quiet shielded something darker, something that drove him to break with reality on a Saturday afternoon in May. Though it was widely speculated that Eugene was under the influence of “bath salts,” a powerful synthetic amphetamine that has fueled a handful of grisly flesh-eating attacks across the country, toxicology tests showed Eugene’s body was clean except for marijuana. A lingering question remains, though — especially among experts — because some synthetic drugs are undetectable. Mental illness could also be a factor, though none of his friends or family say they noticed anything that would lead to that conclusion .
“I am shocked by the situation. I don’t know what to say about it, how to interpret it, how to express it,’’ said Fredric Christian, Eugene’s close friend since they were teens. “The only thing I know for sure is Rudy was something other than this monster people talk about.’’
But there are others who believe Eugene was depressed or struggling within.
“Drugs can open the gateway to the demons inside of you. Whatever he took open[ed] that gateway and a demon came out,’’ said Joe Aurelus, a friend of Eugene’s since they attended church together as children. “Whatever he was fighting, it came out. I believe in spiritual battles. I believe in demons.
“Rudy was fighting a demon that day and he lost.”
Eugene was born Feb. 4, 1981, at Jackson Memorial Hospital. His parents, Ruth Charles and Pellisier Funeus, both Haitian immigrants, divorced months before his birth. Eugene would never meet his father, who died when he was 6, though he would bitterly search for details in later years.
His mother remembers gazing into his tiny face, right after he was born, and thinking, “ ‘That’s a handsome boy.’ He had a lot of hair and his eyes were so alert.”
She worked exhausting hours assembling shoes at a Doral factory, earning just enough to care for her son and send a few dollars home to Haiti. Originally from Cap Haitien, a port city at the northern end of the island, Charles was the daughter of farmers.
“Where I came from, we were poor,’’ said Charles, who married Melimon Charles in 1985 and had two more sons, Thompson and Marckenson. “Sometimes my mom couldn’t buy sugar to put in the tea.’’
But it was that unforgettable poverty that drove Charles to work hard and demand the same of her sons, a pressure that sometimes would spark fights.
As a young boy, Eugene had a huge appetite, a talent for drawing family portraits and a fondness for singing Yes, Jesus Loves Me.
Most Sundays, he attended with his family Bethel Evangelical Baptist Church in Miami — made up of a predominantly Haitian congregation — dressed in a freshly pressed shirt, slacks and shiny dress shoes.
Charles presented her boys with a Bible when they turned 8 and she believed they were old enough to understand its significance. When she handed the Bible to her oldest son, she told him, “This is your life. Anything you want to know about life, go there.”
By high school, though, Eugene had stopped going to church regularly. He kept reading the Bible. And he clung to one tradition: Every night, he would get down on his knees and pray, according to friends and family.
He loved football, playing defensive end in middle and high school. He rough-housed with his brothers, copying wrestling moves they’d seen on television. “He would pick me up and throw me on the bed,” his brother Marckenson, now 25, remembered. “He would act like I knocked him out to make me feel good.”
But when Eugene was in the ninth or 10th grade , his world was shaken to the core. His mother told him that her husband, Melimon Charles, the man he had called “Daddy” since he was 2, was not his biological father. And he would later learn the father he’d never known was dead.
The boy was angry at first, Melimon Charles said.
Eventually, he said, the boy accepted “the truth and we were doing fine.”
But signs of trouble began to crop up. When Eugene was 16, he was arrested for battery. The charges were later dropped, but it was the first of a string of arrests on charges ranging from trespassing to marijuana possession. In all, he was arrested seven times in five years, the last in 2009.
Graduation from North Miami High School in 2000 only left him more adrift. Ruth Charles had become a nursing assistant and she wanted Eugene to work in the healthcare industry, too.
“I would go after him to go to college, go to vocational school, learn something,” she said, but the conversations often ended in a fight. “I wanted him to be in healthcare because you can always get a job.’’
Instead Eugene was a wanderer, never quite settling down. He lived off and on with friends and his mother — she ordered him out of the house several times. He detailed cars at dealerships and worked as a forklift operator. He talked about becoming a small-business owner, wanting to open up a mobile car wash.
Three powerful jolts from a taser
In 2004, Eugene had another fight with his mother. This time, it escalated. Sweating profusely, he pushed her out of the kitchen, smashed a table and told her, “I’ll put a gun to your head and kill you,’’ according to police.
When North Miami Beach police arrived, he “balled his hands into a fist” and threatened several police officers. When one officer drew his Taser, Eugene responded, “What you gonna shock me,’’ and “I’ll kick your ass.” It took three Taser shots to subdue Eugene.
“Thank God you’re here, he would have killed me,” Charles told officers on the scene.
While Eugene was being transported to the station he told police, “Officer I’m sorry, I should have never acted like that. My mother just makes me upset because she always calls me a bum.’’
The battery charge was later dropped, but Eugene pleaded guilty to resisting arrest and was sentenced to probation
About six weeks before Eugene turned 24, he married Jenny Ductant, who he met while studying in high school. The marriage broke up after 18 months because she said he was violent, according to an interview on WPLG-ABC 10 in May.
In 2007, he met Rikkia Cross as they were both in their cars at a red light, made eye contact and he honked the horn at her. Drawn to his good looks, Cross gave Eugene her phone number, the beginning of a rocky but enduring five-year relationship.
Weeks after his death, Cross sat in the wood paneled living room of her parents’ modest home in Miami Gardens, the only place she says she feels safe, outside of media scrutiny. Crying, she slowly scrolled through her cellphone looking at pictures of Eugene, the most recent taken the day before he was killed.
Cross, a dispatcher at an air-conditioning company, talked softly about how they connected instantly, how after only five months, the couple moved into a two-bedroom apartment in Broward County. They spent time watching movies, riding go-karts and reading the Bible. She kept the pantry stocked with his favorite snack: Famous Amos cookies, chocolate chip and pecan.
“Rudy was sweet and kind,” she said, “the type of dude you want to be with forever. He was my heart.’’
As friends and family try to piece together Eugene’s final hours, a few of the gaps have been filled in. The evening before the attack, Christian, Eugene’s longtime friend, said a troubled Eugene came over to visit Christian’s brother.
“My brother said Rudy didn’t look right,’’ Christian said. “[Eugene] said he needed to talk to [my brother] about something but never got a chance to say what it was.”
The next morning, Cross said, Eugene was up about 5 a.m. scouring their closet for something, leaving heaps of clothing strewn across the room. He kissed Cross on the lips and walked out the door carrying his King James Bible and a brown book he used to jot down scriptures.
“It felt like he was searching for something,” she said. “I don’t know what.”
Hours passed. Cross began to worry. It was unusual for Eugene not to check in. She said she called his cellphone dozens of times, tried his friends and finally drove the familiar streets of North Miami hoping to spot his 1995 Chevy Caprice nicknamed, “the purple monster.’’
As Cross searched for Eugene along State Road 7, he had somehow made his way from South Beach — where his car was later found — to the west end of the causeway. Around 2 p.m., he came upon Poppo, 65, who has spent three decades on Miami’s streets. Poppo was in a shady spot along the off-ramp to Biscayne Boulevard next to the Miami Herald building. Eugene began to attack Poppo, ripping off his pants and nearly destroying his face in a relentless 18-minute assault partially caught on Herald surveillance video.
Poppo and Eugene had crossed paths before. A few years ago, Christian said he and Eugene were doing community work feeding the homeless, and the two of them met Poppo
“Poppo seemed like a nice and kind man,” said Christian, 34. “I remember when we gave him food.’’
It wasn’t until two days after the attack that Cross and Eugene’s family would learn the man shot by police was Eugene. That night, Eugene’s mug shot from an earlier arrest — bearded, blank expression — was leading the news, had gone viral and would later become the gruesome punch line of jokes about a Miami zombie cannibal apocalypse.
Friends and family were left reeling, forced to ask if something in his past — the questions about his father, the aimlessness, the casual drug use, his troubled spiritual state — somehow figured into the attack.
“What he fell into, to get into this situation, I don’t know,” said Melimon, tears welling in his eyes. “I wish he were alive so he could tell me [what happened] ... He always told me, ‘Daddy, I’m going to make it.’ ”
Among the clues he left behind was a Quran in his car and a Facebook page, filled with religious references. An April 22 entry is garbled, confusing: The Lord side to my Lord. Sit at My right hand. Till. I make. Your enemies Your footstool.
In the weeks before Eugene’s mother returned to her job at a nursing home, she began to take small steps toward healing, running errands, trying to ignore the mean comments about her son and family. Then, during a visit to a nail salon, Ruth Charles overheard a stranger discussing her son, loudly offering her opinion about how Eugene ended up on the causeway, naked and violent.
It was Vodou, the woman explained matter-of-factly, claiming Rudy came from a line of Haitian practitioners of Vodou and was under a spell.
“The mom is a manbo. His dad is a manbo. The family just took him to Haiti,” the woman said, referring to the Haitian term for Vodou priest or priestess. Charles said she sat there stunned by the lies. Eugene had never even been to Haiti and her family did not practice Vodou.
“They talk so much crap,” she said. “It hurts to hear.”
Closing their doors to a grieving mom
Charles had always been a deeply spiritual woman who attended Sunday service and sang in the choir. So at first, she refused to believe that a church wouldn’t hold a funeral service for her son.
She started by calling churches in Little Haiti and Northeast Miami. Then she tried in person, a mother’s singular plea.
On the third attempt, a week after he was dead, she found a Little Haiti church that would allow her to hold her son’s final farewell. She planned a sermon, testimony, eulogy and songs — in the company of those who remembered Eugene before the attack.
The pastor took her deposit. But two days before the service, he told her his congregation and church leaders did not feel comfortable having his body in their church.
That afternoon, she found another church, blocks away, still in the heart of the Haitian community.
Less than 24 hours before the service, that pastor called and cancelled, too.
At that point, Charles made a hard decision. Her youngest son, Marckenson, sent out a mass text message again to those planning to attend. The service would be held in the chapel of a funeral home.
“I believe that we can all agree in this room what happened two weeks ago on Saturday ending Rudy’s life is not consistent with who Rudy was,” said Pastor Keny Felix of Bethel, who was one of the speakers at the service. “The events of May 26 remind us that we live in a broken world. We live in a dark world.”
Eugene is buried in a corner of a cemetery in Miami-Dade. His girlfriend visits his grave, with its simple stone marker and artificial bouquet of purple and yellow blossoms, to remind him that he was loved, that he is forgiven and to somehow get closer to the truth.
“What happened to Rudy had to be supernatural, something humans cannot explain, something that leaves us with a lot of questions,’’ she said. “I just wish he would come to me in a dream and answer all the questions. I wish he would tell me what happened that day.’’