It’s after one P.M. on the Saturday before Memorial Day. The sun sits high in the cloudless subtropical sky. A bearded man with braided hair pushes his way through the withering heat, waving his arms and muttering to himself. Thirty-one-year-old Rudy Eugene is as naked as the day his creator made him. The only thing this small-time marijuana peddler carries is a King James Bible. Spread out before him is the MacArthur Causeway, three miles of baking concrete that links South Beach (the southern end of Miami Beach) to the downtown Miami mainland. It is Eugene’s last hour on earth, and ahead lies his own personal highway to a special kind of hell.
Nobody knows what was going through Eugene’s troubled mind in his final moments, but it couldn’t have been pretty. Those driving on the causeway that afternoon see a lean, muscular man, about six-foot and 185 pounds, who seems to be in a hypnotic daze. The first sign the police receive that something is wrong is a 911 call from a motorist time-stamped 1:53 p.m.
“There’s a tall African American man completely naked on one of the light poles, acting like Tarzan,” the startled driver alerts the operator.
The blistering sun continues to beat down on Eugene’s braided head. He’s nearly at the end of the causeway when he sees a homeless man snoozing in a shady spot next to the off-ramp that borders the Miami Herald building. His name is Ronald Poppo, a leathery bag of bones sleeping off a hangover. Poppo is 65 and once had a life—one full of promise, as it turns out. Once a student at Manhattan’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School, a Latin scholar with a 129 IQ, he was destined for great things, until he hit the skids.
Eugene wakes Poppo. At first Eugene appears friendly. After a few minutes, however, his mood turns and he accuses Poppo of trying to steal his Bible.
“I’m gonna kill you,” Eugene says. “It’s just you and me. Nobody else here.”
Eugene pounces on Poppo, kicks him in the gut and beats him about the head with his fists. The old man kicks back, trying to defend himself against the much younger and stronger Eugene. So Eugene punishes him by dragging him across the concrete and beating him again, before ripping off the man’s trousers.
The attacker straddles Poppo and sinks his teeth into his cheek. He throws his head back, ripping off a chunk of Poppo’s sunburned flesh. He chews it and then, as though the mouthful suddenly repulses him, spits it to the sidewalk. Eugene gouges both Poppo’s eyes with his bare hands and then bites off his nose, after which he chomps away at whatever skin, muscle and fat is left on the homeless man’s face. Poppo is now barely recognizable as human; his face looks like raw hamburger meat.
A flashing blue light appears in the corner of Eugene’s vision. He hears the sound of squealing tires and then a man’s voice: “Move away from the body. Move away or I will shoot you.”
Officer Jose Ramirez can hardly believe what he’s witnessing. Eugene turns his head and lets out a feral growl. Ramirez sees Poppo’s blood bubbling between the assailant’s teeth. Stunned, he steadies himself, bends his knees and fires. Eugene barely flinches as the bullet drills into him. He continues to attack Poppo. It takes three more shots before Eugene collapses next to the homeless man’s body. Poppo is in shock, his right leg twitching like a downed power line. He’s alive, but only just.
A dark curtain descends over Eugene’s life. Rudy Eugene is no more, but within hours, he will rise like Lazarus from the dead. For Eugene is resurrected not to sit next to God in heaven, as he hoped and expected, but to serve as an internet meme, sentenced for his sins to live for all eternity as a parody of a horror-movie monster.
He is now the “Miami Zombie.”
By the time Miami Fraternal Order of Police president Armando Aguilar arrived, the crime scene was cordoned off with yellow tape. Lines of honking cars stretched bumper-to-bumper from South Beach to the mainland. Paramedics were loading Ronald Poppo into the back of an ambulance. Months, if not years, of painful reconstructive surgery awaited him.
Investigators combed the area and identified Poppo’s attacker by a driver’s license left along the causeway. They also found pages Eugene had ripped from his beloved Bible, his one constant companion, his friends would later tell reporters. Officers walking the span of the bridge retrieved items of Eugene’s clothing. They found a set of gold teeth in the pocket of his pants.
Aguilar had seen some sick sights in his three decades in law enforcement—beheaded bodies, grisly car crashes—but nothing as unspeakable as this. The attack had lasted 18 minutes. Eighteen long minutes. Imagine Poppo’s terror. Aguilar shook his head in disbelief. What sort of human being could do this to another, he asked himself, and more important, why? Drugs, probably, but what type of drug?
Back when he was a narcotics cop in the 1980s, Aguilar had seen people high on LSD, crack or PCP do all kinds of crazy things, but that paled in comparison with this. He stared at where Rudy Eugene’s bullet-riddled body lay on the sidewalk next to a pool of blood. He half expected the body to start moving and Eugene to sit up.