Aguilar had a more pressing problem than figuring out the mystery of what prompted Eugene to do what he did. Officer Ramirez, who was now draped in a blanket in the back of an ambulance, most likely saved Ronald Poppo’s life. Nobody could say this wasn’t a good shooting, Aguilar thought. Ramirez had a clean record, and this was the first time he had used his weapon in his four years with the department.
Still, the fact remained that a Hispanic officer had shot an unarmed black man in a city with a long history of racially charged police killings. Aguilar was well aware of the ongoing Department of Justice investigation into the Miami Police Department: Hispanic cops had fatally shot seven African American civilians in the span of eight months. The shootings raised tensions in a city already known as a racial tinderbox.
It was approaching three P.M., and Aguilar had only a short time before the story exploded in the media. He decided to bury the racial angle by feeding local reporters an alternative narrative that would prove irresistible: A flesh-eating monster high on a sinister new drug called bath salts devoured a homeless man’s face.
Later that evening the local CBS television station, WFOR, aired a possible explanation for the grisly assault.
“The officer believes the man clearly, clearly was on some very, very powerful drugs,” said news anchor Cynthia Demos.
“That’s right, Cynthia,” said reporter Tiffani Helberg. “The Fraternal Order of Police president tells me this crop of LSD”—referring to bath salts—“is a major threat to police officers as well as the rest of us. He says it turns normal people into monsters that possess this superhuman strength and no ability to feel pain.”
Bath salts are packets of drugs that, until a federal ban came into effect recently, were legally sold over the counter in head shops, gas stations and convenience stores. Marketed under brand names such as Purple Rain and Vanilla Sky, the packets contain anything from caffeine to the dental anesthetic lidocaine, but they mostly consist of synthetic cathinones, a class of stimulants—primarily mephedrone, methylone and MDPV—that mimic the properties of an herbal compound found in the khat plant native to East Africa.
Bath salts started to pop up in the United States three years ago. They were considered either a starter drug for teenagers or a replacement drug for users who couldn’t get ecstasy or crystal meth. The fact that the drug was legal was its biggest selling point—and it didn’t show up on standard drug tests.
Until police union chief Aguilar blamed the Rudy Eugene incident on bath salts, few members of the Miami Police Department had heard of the drug.
A month after the macabre assault, Aguilar is sitting behind his desk in his office at Miami’s Fraternal Order of Police lodge housed in a boxy blue stucco building in a shabby part of the Little Havana neighborhood. Aguilar wears a brown short-sleeved guayabera—the garment of choice for older members of Miami’s Cuban exile community. The police union boss is medium height with a trim build. His bald head and mustache make him look like a thinner, olive-skinned version of Dr. Phil.
A politician’s grin spreads across his face as he checks his iPhone for messages. It has been a busy month. The same grin beams from a framed photograph from the 1980s that hangs on the wall behind him; in the photo Aguilar, then a member of the elite Street Narcotics Unit, stands behind a table heaped with guns and cocaine—the goods from a major drug bust.
Aguilar’s grin disappeared in 1993 when the U.S. government charged him with planting a butcher knife at a crime scene in an attempt to cover up the murder of small-time drug dealer Leonardo Mercado. (Six Miami cops had been charged with beating Mercado to death a few years earlier, but none was convicted.) The rictus grin returned, however, after the jury acquitted Aguilar of the conspiracy charges.
His comments to the local media that bath salts were suspected of triggering the MacArthur Causeway incident sparked an orgy of news coverage that turned bath salts from an obscure drug trend into the scourge of a nation practically overnight.
“All this publicity is crazy,” he says as he sits back in his chair. “I’ve done more than a hundred interviews. The media interest in this case is unbelievable.”
Typical was his appearance on CNN four days after the horror on the causeway. “The gruesome face-eating attack in Miami could be part of a trend, an example of something larger and much more dangerous,” host Erin Burnett told her viewers. Aguilar agreed and pointed to two other cases in the Miami area in which people “disrobed themselves and became very, very violent.” Police initially blamed these incidents on LSD, Aguilar said, but were now convinced they were caused by bath salts.