Chronically homeless and recently blinded, Ronald Poppo calmly told detectives about the sudden savage assault that cost him parts of his face.
A man in a green shirt came out of a car he had hitchhiked in, grousing about not being able to score on the beach. The man seemed friendly enough at first, Poppo said. The stranger went from being in a “glad mood” to singing the 1960s tune A Lover’s Concerto and saying “you are going to be my wife.” Then, Poppo said, he “turned vicious after a minute or two, and he started to rip me apart.”
“He attacked me. He just ripped me to ribbons. He chewed up my face. He plucked out my eyes. Basically, that’s all there is to say about it,” Poppo told Miami investigators.
In a recorded interview with Miami police obtained and first reported by Miami Herald news partner CBS4, Poppo is heard for the first time describing the May 26 assault by a crazed assailant who “must have had a bad day at the beach.” It was the attack that catapulted Poppo out of his anonymous life in the city’s shadows onto the front pages of newspapers around the world.
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Poppo, a homeless alcoholic who lived in the Jungle Island parking garage, will now be best known for having been the victim of a cannibal. Gruesome photos of his face circulated on the Internet.
His recorded interview took place July 19 at Jackson Memorial Perdue Medical Center, a long-term-care facility in Cutler Bay. Poppo calmly explained that he had no address and was too old to work.
He told Sgt. Altarr Williams and Det. Frankie Sanchez that he was standing near South Bayshore Drive and 13th Street, just beside the Miami Herald building, when he heard a car door slam and then saw a man appear. The man was bigger than Poppo and carried nothing in his hands.
He thought it happened on May 16, but the sergeant explained to Poppo that his recall was about 10 days off.
It was the 26th, a Saturday, at about 2 p.m. Masses of revelers were partying in Miami Beach for Urban Beach Week. Poppo was on the MacArthur Causeway, minding his own business, when he was approached by Rudy Eugene, a 31-year-old who washed cars, and liked to smoke marijuana and quote the Bible.
“For a while he was acting nice. Then he got flustered. He probably remembered something that happened on the beach and was not happy about it,” Poppo said.
He said Eugene said something about wanting “to score” and not being able to.
Eugene, he said, started talking funny. He started to scream. He seemed preoccupied with death, Poppo recalled. Although he did not mention it in the taped interview, in a later meeting with police the victim said Eugene accused him of stealing his Bible.
“For a very short amount of time I thought he was a good guy,” Poppo said. “But he just went and turned berserk.”
Poppo remembered Eugene telling him that they would both die.
“You and me buddy and nobody else,” he quoted Eugene saying. “He must have been souped up on something.”
Poppo calmly described how Eugene chewed his face and gouged his eyes out using only “brute force.” Eugene, he said, carried no weapon.
“He mashed my face into the sidewalk,” he said. “My face is all bent and bashed up. My eyes, my eyes got plucked out. He was strangling me in wrestling holds, at the same time he was picking my eyes out.”
The attack ended with five blasts from Miami Officer Jose Ramirez’s gun.
Sgt. Williams, who was investigating the shooting, asked Poppo if he had provoked Eugene.
“What could provoke an attack of that type?” Poppo responded. “I didn’t curse at the guy or say anything mean or nasty.”
No information ever surfaced to explain Eugene’s bizarre behavior. Speculation that he was high on so-called “bath salts” was debunked by a medical examiner’s report, which showed that Eugene had only marijuana in his system.
“He apparently didn’t have a good day at the beach and he — he was coming back,” Poppo said. “And I guess he took it out, took it out on me or something. I don’t know.”
Although Poppo sounded coherent and lucid, parts of his account show he may have been confused about some details. It’s unlikely that Eugene had hitchhiked across the causeway, and the surveillance camera video captured by The Miami Herald showed the attacker was naked at the time of the incident. Even though he first told police Eugene was shirtless, Poppo later recalled a green shirt and shorts. In fact, he said, the victim and attacker wore similar clothes.
He said he believed Eugene was a dealer, a tidbit he said he knew perhaps by “telepathy.”
Poppo spent several weeks at Jackson Memorial Hospital being treated for his injuries. Doctors removed one of his eyes and the other was severely damaged. He had two puncture wounds in his chest, which doctors said may have been from the bullets fired from the officer’s gun.
Poppo also had a broken rib and infections on his face. He lost his eyebrows, nose, part of his forehead and right cheek.
When doctors spoke to the media in mid-June, Poppo’s brother, who lives in California, was acting as his health-care surrogate. Poppo subsequently took over responsibility for his own care and has declined to give interviews. A transcript of one of his three interviews with police shows he told detectives that he did not like how he was portrayed in the press and did not want to talk to the media.
About a month ago, he transferred out of the hospital to the South Dade facility, where a social worker helped him reconnect with his older sister, Antoinette.
It had been at least 30 years since they last talked.
“I asked [the social worker] if he wants to talk to me, and she said, ‘He talks about you all the time.’ I said, ‘Really?’ ” Antoinette Poppo told The Miami Herald by phone from New York. “He asked me how the family was. He wants to know if I’m ever going to move to Florida. He said he’d like to see me. I would love to see him, but I have Parkinson’s.”
Poppo told his sister he likes the place where he’s living and that he gets a lot of mail, which is read to him.
“They treat him very well, and the social worker said they like having him,” she said.
Poppo told his sister he’ll be having more surgery, but won’t be able to see again.
She and her brother don’t talk about why he drifted away from the family or what he’d been doing the past three decades. Nor, she said, does she ask about the attack.
“He doesn’t say, and I don’t ask,” she said. “I don’t want to push it.”
In his interview with police, Poppo tired of discussing it after about 15 minutes. Saying he was exhausted, he wanted to wrap up. Asked if he had anything he wanted to add, he thanked Miami police for showing up when he began to scream to save his life.
“If they didn’t get there in a nick of time, I would’ve definitely be in worse shape,” he said. “Possibly I’d be DOA.”
Miami Herald staff writer Elinor Brecher contributed to this report.