Friends at a loss to explain actions of 'Miami zombie'

Ronald Poppo had a hard-knock life on the streets.

A homeless drinker who had been shot once and arrested two dozen times, he is fighting for his life at Jackson Memorial Hospital’s Ryder Trauma Center after an 18-minute cannibal attack that cost him most of his face. At 65, he has been homeless for almost four decades.

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

Eugene died in a hail of police bullets when he mauled Poppo in a sudden and unprovoked attack. Eugene will be forever remembered as the Miami Zombie.

“Rudy was not a face-eating zombie monster,” said his 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, just south of 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 an apparent drug-fueled 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 close 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. A Miami police union official speculated that he must have been high on LSD or some other drug that causes psychosis as the body overheats. As doctors and pundits hypothesized about what could have caused an ordinary man to do something so extreme, police said no tangible evidence to explain it had emerged.

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, from selling CDs to working at McDonald’s to telemarketing. he last worked washing cars at an automobile dealership, Smith said.

Lately, he spoke of buying his 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 his lifelong 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.”

He said Eugene liked to freestyle rap and listen to music.

“He had his little problems, but nothing too dramatic,” Ruiz said. “He was sane.”

Forte, his North Miami Beach High classmate, said other members of the Class of 2000 want to spread the word that Eugene was better known for his stint playing defensive end of the high school football team, doing favors for friends and cheering them up on bad days.

Friends at a loss to explain actions of 'Miami zombie'

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