Miami 'zombie-like' face-chewing suspect Rudy Eugene was 'a beautiful person,' former classmate says

MIAMI, Fla. -- The naked cannibal was not the Rudy Eugene his classmates knew.

The image of a growling, face-eating so-called "zombie" didn't sit well Tuesday with those who remembered Eugene as a teenager.

"No, that's not him," said Victoria Forte, a former classmate from North Miami Beach High School. "Drugs did this to him. Drugs took over a person we knew as a beautiful person."

Eugene, 31, was shot and killed by a Miami police officer who tried to get him to stop chewing on the bloodied flesh of Ronald Poppo, 65, on the MacArthur Causeway on Saturday afternoon. The grisly attack made international headlines, with graphic photographs of the victim lying beside his nude, dead attacker circulating on social media websites.

But Miami police have released no information about the events that led to the incident, including whether or how Eugene and Poppo may have known each other.

"It's all under investigation," Sgt. Freddie Cruz said.

Poppo remains in critical condition at the Ryder Trauma Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

The Miami-Dade Medical Examiner's Office is expected to perform an autopsy that will include a toxicology screening to determine whether Eugene really was under the influence of drugs when he went on the attack.

According to public records, Eugene was married from 2005 through 2007 — his divorce from Jenny Ductant was finalized Jan. 7, 2008. Ductant declined an interview request Tuesday afternoon. The divorce case file mentions nothing about children.

During the marriage, Eugene lived in Hollywood.

But as a teenager, he attended John F. Kennedy Middle School and North Miami Beach High School, Forte said. He was not one to get into serious trouble, she said.

Even after graduating, Eugene's brushes with the law were relatively minor. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement shows Eugene was arrested as a teenager in 1997 by the Miami-Dade Police Department for battery, but the charges were later dropped.

Over the next few years, Eugene picked up seven more arrests, but none for violence. They include four marijuana arrests and one for selling drugs near a school.  

His last arrest came in 2009, a marijuana charge that was dropped, state records show.

Jim Hall, director of Nova Southeastern University's Center for the Study and Prevention of Substance Abuse, said the level of violence associated with the incident led him to believe synthetic drugs commonly known as "bath salts" may be involved, but he could not be certain. Cocaine and methamphetamines could also bring out such violent behavior, he said.

Hall described bath salts as being among the "front burner" of drugs catching the attention of law enforcement officials and users. They are part of a group of hundreds of psychoactive substances that are not regulated and sold as legal products.

The drugs mostly comprise chemicals called mephedrone and MDPV. They are usually swallowed or snorted.

He said there have been many reports of the drugs causing violent behavior, but nothing as violent as cannibalism.

"A key issue is that nobody ever knows what's in them. They can be something mild one week, something very strong the next week," he said.

Efforts to contact the victim's family on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Poppo has a lengthy, non-violent criminal record dating back to the mid-1980s, mostly for crimes associated with living on the streets. That includes a 1983 bust for sleeping in public and numerous arrests for public and disorderly intoxication.

His last arrest on record came in 2006 for trespassing.

The quality of the victim's recovery will depend largely on how bad the damage was, said Michael Salzhauer, a Miami plastic surgeon who has performed facial reconstruction surgery for gunshot victims.

"The real question is how much skin is left," said Salzhauer, chief surgeon at Bal Harbour Plastic Surgery Associates. "Once you clean out the blood and see how much skin is left, we may have a candidate for a face transplant."

Full face transplant surgeries are rare and cutting edge, Salzhauer said.

The first such surgery in the United States was performed on a Texas man just last year. Another recipient was the Connecticut woman who was mauled by a chimpanzee in 2009. Her face transplant surgery was in May 2011.

Even without a transplant, Poppo could still benefit from reconstruction using skin tissue from other parts of his body, including the buttocks and forearms, Salzhauer said.

Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.


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