MIAMI — On the Saturday morning before he would make headlines for chewing off a man’s face — before he would come to be known tragically as the “Miami Zombie” — Rudy Eugene held his Bible and kissed his girlfriend goodbye.
Eugene’s on-again, off-again girlfriend said he woke her up at 5:30 a.m. to say he was going to meet with a “homeboy.” She said she found it strange he was rummaging the closet so early in morning. He didn’t name the friend or say where he was going.
He planted a kiss on her lips and said, “I love you.” Shortly after, he left the central Broward apartment he shared with her.
“I told him be safe and I love you too. When he walked out the door I closed it, locked it and went back to sleep,” said the girlfriend, who spoke to The Miami Herald on Wednesday but asked that her name not be disclosed. She said that she thought it unusual that he was leaving the house so early, but didn’t press him on it.
An hour after he left, Eugene called her cellphone. “He called me and told me his car broke down. He said, “I’ll be home, but I’m going to be a little late. Then he said, ‘I’m going to call you right back.’ ” That was the last time Eugene’s girlfriend heard from him.
Around noon Saturday, she said she felt uneasy. She got into her car to search for Eugene, thinking he might still be stranded somewhere.
She drove through North Miami and Miami Gardens, familiar neighborhoods Eugene frequented to visit with friends and family.
“I was worried. I couldn’t do anything. I just kept calling the phone,” she said. “I left messages saying, ‘Rudy, call me, I’m really worried.’ ” She said Eugene never told her where he was going that morning, and she was surprised to hear reports that he had been in South Beach in the hours before he attacked a homeless man, Ronald Poppo.
In fact, she said, the previous day he told her he didn’t want to go to South Beach because of the heavy police presence for Urban Beach Week. Eugene, who had been arrested in the past for possession of marijuana, told her he didn’t want to get arrested.
By Saturday evening she still had not heard from the man she calls “my baby, my heart.” She turned on the TV to watch the late night news and heard an unreal story: A nude man near the Miami Herald building pounced on a homeless man, chewing off his face. The man, with pieces of flesh hanging from his teeth, was shot dead by police.
“I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, that’s crazy,’ ” she said. “I didn’t know that it was Rudy.” All day Sunday she placed phone calls to friends asking if they had seen Eugene and again she searched North Dade streets for her boyfriend.
At 11 a.m. Monday she got the call from a member of Eugene’s family.
The caller shouted terrible news into the phone: “Rudy’s dead, Rudy’s dead.”
“I immediately started to scream,’’ she said. “I don’t know when I hung up the phone, I was hysterical.” But it was not until the afternoon, when she left her home to grieve with the rest of Eugene’s family in North Miami Beach, that she heard even worse news: The man everyone was calling the Miami Zombie was her boyfriend.
Her reaction: Utter disbelief. “That’s not Rudy, that’s not Rudy,” she remembered saying aloud in shock.
“I’ll never be the same,” she said.
The man being depicted by the media as a “face eater” or a “monster” is not the man she knew, she said. He smoked marijuana often, though had recently said he wanted to quit, but he didn’t use stronger recreational drugs and even refused to take over-the-counter medication for simple ailments like headaches, she said. He was sweet and well-mannered, she said.
Eugene’s girlfriend has her own theory on what happened that day. She believes Eugene was drugged unknowingly. The only other explanation, she said, was supernatural — that someone put a Vodou curse on him.
The girlfriend, who unlike Eugene is not Haitian, said she has never believed in Vodou, until now.
“I don’t know how else to explain this,” she said.
She and Eugene met in 2007. While in traffic on a Miami street, Eugene pulled up next to her car and motioned for her to roll down her window.
She did. “I thought he was cute. I shouted out my number to him and he called me right then. We clicked immediately.” Their five-year relationship hit rocky points over the years, and they would separate for months at a time, then reunite. She said their problems were mostly “communication issues.” She said Eugene worked at a car wash and wanted to own his own business someday.
During their time together, she said, Eugene would sit on the bed or on the couch in the evenings with her to read from his Bible. He carried it with him just about everywhere he went, she said, and often cited verses to friends and family.
“If someone was lost or didn’t know God, he would tell them about him,” she said. “He was a believer of God.” She cries often, she said. Eugene’s clothes and shoes are still in her closet.
“Something happened out of the ordinary that day. I don’t want him to be labeled the ‘Miami Zombie,’ ” she said. “He was a person. I don’t want him to go down like that.” He was never violent around her, she said.
But according to police records, Eugene became violent at least once in his past and was arrested on battery charges. In 2004, he threatened his mother and smashed furniture during a domestic dispute, according to records from the North Miami Beach Police Department.
The police report says Eugene “took a fighting stand, balled his hands into a fist” and threatened one of the officers who responded.
Police had to use a Taser to subdue him. “Thank God you’re here, he would have killed me,” Eugene’s mother, Ruth Charles, told officers, the police report states. She told the officers that before they arrived, her son had told her, “I’ll put a gun to your head and kill you.” On Wednesday, Charles said that despite the incident, she and her son had a warm relationship.
“I’m his first love … he’s a nice kid … He was not a delinquent,” she told Miami Herald news partner CBS 4 at her Miami Gardens home.
Charles told the station she was speaking up for the first time to defend her dead son.
“Everybody says that he was a zombie, but I know he’s not a zombie; he’s my son,” she said.
She said the man who ate another human being’s face was just not the son she knew.
“I don’t know what they injected in him to turn him into the person who did what he did,” she said, making the motion of someone putting a syringe into the crook of her arm.
A friend of Eugene’s since they were teenagers told The Miami Herald on Wednesday that Eugene had been troubled in recent years.
Joe Aurelus said Eugene told him he wanted to stop smoking pot, and that friends were texting Eugene Bible verses.
“I was just with him two weeks ago,” he said. They were at a friend’s house watching a movie and Eugene had a Bible in his hand.
“He was going through a lot with his family,” Aurelus said, and jumping from job to job.
“Rudy was battling the devil.”
Miami Herald staff writers Elinor J. Brecher and Scott Hiaasen contributed to this report.