MIAMI — When Ronald Poppo was a kid in the 1950s and ’60s, a family Christmas in Brooklyn meant wind-up model trains circling the tree, Italian dinners of lasagna and stuffed squid, and, because Dec. 25 was also his father’s birthday, ricotta-filled cassata cake.
There was always music, because the Poppos have musical talent. Ronnie, as his older sister and two older brothers called him, played the violin as a child and guitar as a teenager.
And there was church, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, as their mother was a devout Baptist.
An aunt brought Christmas presents, recalled Ronald’s sister, Antoinette Poppo, who still lives in New York.
“We were poor, but we didn’t know we were poor,” she said.
It’s hard to say when Ronald Poppo last enjoyed childhood Christmas memories, had a merry — or even comfortable — Christmas. After vanishing from the family in the early 1970s, he encamped on the gritty streets of Miami, an inebriated vagrant drifting ever further from the mainstream.
His last known home was the concrete stairwell of a tourist-attraction parking garage.
He surfaced again May 26 as the hapless victim in one of South Florida’s most sensational, blood-drenched crimes. That day, a naked, crazed, 31-year-old Rudy Eugene attacked 65-year-old Poppo on the MacArthur Causeway, stripping away his clothes then gnawing on Poppo’s face, leaving him mutilated and blind.
Police shot and killed Eugene about 18 minutes into the assault.
Through news of the event, Poppo’s stunned siblings learned he had been alive all along, and people from his past began to emerge with snippets of information about his life before he disappeared onto the streets.
After intensive medical treatment at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Poppo moved to Jackson Memorial Perdue Medical Center, an 11-acre, 163-bed nursing home/rehab facility in South Dade, its halls now cheerily decked with holiday decorations.
He has refused all interview requests since the incident, and apart from allowing doctors to hold a news conference in June, he hasn’t authorized his treating physicians to talk about his medical condition.
Jackson officials closely guard his privacy.
Photos displayed at the June news conference showed Poppo’s face as a mass of clots and raw tissue, his eye sockets hidden under flaps of skin, his nose gone, his cheeks and forehead partially so. Doctors had to remove one mangled eyeball but at the time hoped to save the other, and at least some sight.
They weren’t able to.
His sister says that when they talk, brother Ronnie doesn’t mention the attack, the past, or how he spends his time. But he did recently say that he likes his accommodations and the people who care for him.
“He says they take him outside and walk him around the place,” Antoinette Poppo said. “He’s glad to be there … He doesn’t really talk much at all. He says, ‘Take care of yourself.’ It’s so sad he can’t see, and has to depend on other people.”
He told her that “his face hasn’t healed yet,” but that he doesn’t want more surgery because “it’s going to hurt.”
If so inclined, Poppo could have participated in all sorts of Christmas festivities at Perdue, where well-wishers from The Cocoplum and Cutler Ridge Women’s Clubs, the Soroptimist Club of Coral Gables, the Grupo de Kendall, Bethel Baptist Church, and the Teddy Bear Club brought gifts for residents such as shampoo, batteries, home-made goodies — and teddy bears.
“An anonymous ‘angel’ bought sweatpants, socks and a hat for every resident,” said Jennifer Mooney Piedra, Jackson senior media specialist.
She said the staff hosted a holiday barbecue for residents on Dec. 18, and that Haitian Ministry singers caroled in Creole.
Apart from stealing his eyesight, getting him off the streets, and making him the object of ghoulish fascination worldwide, the savagery of the May 26 assault has wrought other changes for Ronald Poppo. Some he has embraced; others not.
He knows that his brothers are aware of his circumstances, but he hasn’t asked to call them nor has he asked them or his sister to visit.
A New York newspaper found an adult daughter, Janice Poppo DiBello, in New Jersey, the product of a brief marriage in the late 1960s. The Poppos never knew she existed, Antoinette said.
After the attack on her father, Janice reached out to her aunt and uncles — Albert in California and Joseph in New York — but hasn’t tried to get in touch with her father, Antoinette said. Nor, she said, has Ronnie asked to speak to his daughter. In fact, Ron Poppo doesn’t believe he has any children, his sister said.
DiBello, who has shared photos of her parents’ modest wedding at a Brooklyn restaurant with her newfound family members, hasn’t responded to interview requests.
After graduating from Manhattan’s elite Stuyvesant High School in 1964, Ron Poppo attended the City College of New York, and according to reporting by Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS4, played in a band called The Famed Flying Berserks.
“He was into music,” recalled his sister, who allowed Poppo to live with her and her five sons for a time when he attended City College, until “he got mixed up with the wrong kind of people:” 1960s-era counterculture druggies.
Poppo joined the band in 1965, said fellow guitarist Stevan Porter, who was living in Coney Island and attending City College at the time. They were looking for a lead guitar and were introduced to Poppo, who played but didn’t sing.
“We liked him,” said Porter, a retired engineering professor. “He was a regular guy, and you had to be pretty bright to go to City College in those days.”
All the guys were science-minded, he said, including Poppo.
For the two years that Poppo played with the Berserks, they mainly played British invasion-group covers: The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Animals. But Poppo “loved the Beach Boys,” Porter said. “He introduced us to ‘In My Room.’”
Poppo grew his hair into a Beatles-style mop, and used the lingo of the era.
“Every other word was ‘cool’ and ‘like,”’ Porter said. And if he was doing drugs, “it was probably marijuana.”
The band lost track of Poppo in the fall of 1966. As Porter recalls it, he didn’t show up when he was expected and didn’t answer the phone.
“He just vanished,” said Porter. “We never saw him again.”
It was, apparently, all downhill from there.
In Miami, Poppo amassed a long record of petty offenses and once was shot.
Swimming teacher Jackie LeBel said she used to see him near the Miami Beach Publix at 1045 Dade Blvd., and that he was well known in the area.
“He used to walk down 17th Street and over by the fire station in Miami Beach,” she said. “People used to know him. They’d hand their leftover lunches to him out of the car window … . He was a regular kind of person who minded his own business and stayed out of trouble.”
Poppo’s last known home was the garage stairwell at Jungle Island, according to outreach workers from the Homeless Trust, who last spoke to him there two days before attack. He had repeated contacts with outreach workers since the late 1990s, but seemed to prefer his independence.
Under the stairs it was safe, an isolated space where he kept his few belongings, water and food, with a public restroom a few steps away.
Although a chronic alcoholic, Poppo didn’t bother anyone, Jungle Island employees said. Sometimes he’d clean up trash in the garage, and they’d give him a few dollars.
But a patron complained a few days before the attack and the outreach workers called police, who cleared out Poppo’s stairwell cave. Poppo hit the road.
He was lounging in the shade on the MacArthur walkway near The Miami Herald parking garage about 2 p.m. when Rudy Eugene spotted him and began his savage attack.
His face was the last thing Ronald Edward Poppo ever saw.
Distributed by MCT Information Services