Saturday, November 18, 2017
Public safety

Victim of 'Miami Zombie' is a longtime homeless man

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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 the Ryder Trauma Center after a 15-minute cannibal attack cost him parts of his face. At 65, he'd been homeless for almost four decades.

His hardscrabble existence took a violent 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, and will be forever remembered as the Miami Zombie.

It's unclear what brought the two unlikely characters together on the MacArthur Causeway. Poppo was known for hanging out under the bridge; Eugene liked to go to the South Beach on Memorial Day Urban Beach Week.

A Miami Herald video showed Eugene on the Miami end of the MacArthur Causeway, naked and in an apparent drug-fueled rage. He forced Poppo's clothes off and began mauling him as horrified drivers watched and a surveillance camera rolled.

"Rudy was not a face-eating zombie monster," said classmate Victoria Forte.

Eugene, 31, was positively identified as the man who went on a crazed rampage Saturday on the MacArthur Causeway. Witnesses said Eugene mauled Poppo's face and was stopped after several blasts from a Miami police officer's gun.

The story of the flesh-eating beast in Miami quickly went viral, as such news-of-the-weird tends to do.

But those who knew Eugene say they were stunned to learn of Eugene's involvement because the description of the enraged cannibal gunned down in broad daylight bears no resemblance to the person they knew. Friends remember his radiant smile and friendly nature.

"Classmates from Naples, Orlando to Miami cannot get over this," Forte said. "There's been an overwhelming response. We are going to do our part as his friends to not let him go down like this. The Rudy we know was a nice gentleman with a warm smile and funny. He's not like that at all."

Eugene must have been on some kind of drug that made him take a fast downward spiral, she said.

Cassandra Metayer agreed.

"This is not his character," said Metayer, who went to middle school and high school with Eugene.

"This type of behavior is very unexpected," she added. "He was a good person, a true friend. He was a nice, outgoing ready-to-help-anybody kind of guy.

"I'm not just saying that; he really was that person," she added, remembering the time he moved furniture for her relatives by himself.

Metayer said Eugene, the son of Haitian immigrants, grew up in North Miami Beach. He was a football player who Forte said was best known for his warm smile and cracking jokes.

In 2005, he married Metayer's cousin, Jenny Ductant, in Hollywood. They divorced two years later. Metayer said the two split because they had taken different paths in life, particularly as Ductant continued her education and Eugene did not.

Eugene, she said, worked in customer service.

The couple's 2007 divorce record shows he had no income, and his assets included $2 cash and $50 for a cell phone.

His former wife agreed to take on the couple's debt, which included the power and phone bills.

"I don't want to talk about it," Ductant said Tuesday when reached by phone. Metayer said Eugene wasn't known to use drugs or have mental problems.

"He loved his family, loved his friends," Metayer said. "It had to be drugs; someone in their right mind doesn't do that. This is not the act of a normal person. It has to be someone under the influence."

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.

His death unfolded Saturday afternoon at the foot of the exit ramp to the MacArthur Causeway, which spills out onto the Herald parking area.

Security Guard Christian Alvarez, 36, patrols the Herald lots for U.S. Security Associates. On Saturday, he was on golf-cart patrol at the east end of the visitor parking lot when he says he heard four or five gunshots.

He drove the cart to the roof of the parking garage and "saw two guys laying down. One had his face all damaged and bleeding, but he was still alive."

Alvarez heard the victim moaning and saw him trying to sit up. The dead man appeared to have three or four gunshot wounds to his back, he said.

Alvarez said that the way rescue personnel handled the injured man bothered him.

Herald security guard Leonard Nicanor was in the employee-entrance security booth about 2:15 p.m. when Alvarez called to say he'd heard gunshots. The parking garage camera was not aimed at that exact spot, but at 2:17, Nicanor turned the camera toward the scene and watched on the monitor inside the booth.

"I saw police activity," he said. Then he zoomed in and saw "bodies," and kept the camera there.

He sent Alvarez to the top of the parking garage.

Photos taken at the scene showed Poppo, who is believed to be homeless, was left with gruesome injuries.

He has a record of at least 24 arrests going back to 1978, mostly for drinking in public and trespassing, but also a handful of felony arrests for burglary, assault and resisting arrest.

The record suggests that he's been on the streets a long time. He was arrested for sleeping in public in 1983.

Miami Herald staff writers Amy Sherman and Scott Hiaasen contributed to this report.

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