Face-eating case puzzles friends of attacker, who may have been on bath salts

Posted May 30, 2012, at 4:43 p.m.

MIAMI — Ronald Poppo had a hard-knock life on the streets. A homeless drinker who had been shot once and arrested two dozen times, he was fighting for his life Tuesday after an 18-minute cannibal attack in which he lost most of his face.

At 65, Poppo has been homeless for almost four decades.

His hardscrabble existence took a volatile turn Saturday afternoon when he encountered Rudy Eugene, 31, a former North Miami Beach High School football player who liked to smoke marijuana and hoped to buy a mobile car-wash business.

Eugene was shot to death my police after he mauled Poppo in a sudden and unprovoked attack.

ABC News, among other news outlets, reported that Eugene may have been on bath salts, a synthetic street drug.

“Rudy was not a face-eating zombie monster,” said a high school friend. Victoria Forte. “The Rudy we know was a nice gentleman with a warm smile, and funny.”

It remained unclear Tuesday what brought the two unlikely characters together at the eastern end of the MacArthur Causeway, near the Miami Herald building. 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 Herald surveillance video showed Eugene at the Miami end of the causeway shortly before 2 p.m. Saturday, naked and in a rage. He straddled Poppo, punched him, tore off his clothes and gnawed at his face as at least four cyclists rode by.

The carnage ended at 2:13 p.m., when Miami police officer Jose Rivera 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 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 used 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. Police said no tangible evidence had emerged to explain the attack.

Eugene graduated from North Miami Beach High in 2000. He lived off and on with his mother and friends, and worked at an assortment of odd jobs. He last worked washing cars at an automobile dealership, Smith said.

Lately, he spoke of buying a own mobile car-wash business. His late-’90s model Chevrolet Caprice was discovered Tuesday at an impound lot after it had been 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 another 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.”

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 that 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 had been on the streets for a long time. In 1983, he was arrested for sleeping in public.

Court records also show that Poppo was treated for a gunshot wound in January 1976. He listed his address at the time as a Salvation Army facility.

Miami Herald staff writers Nadege Greene, Scott Hiaasen, Melissa Sanchez, Amy Sherman, David Ovalle, Carli Teproff, Manny Navarro and Daniela Guzman contributed to this report.

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©2012 The Miami Herald

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