On the national level, the stakes were higher, as Congress pushed a new bill to outlaw bath salts. Republican senator Rand Paul was holding up a 2011 bill, the Synthetic Drug Control Act, because he objected to what he saw as draconian penalties imposed on users and sellers. The sponsor of the bill, Republican congressman Charlie Dent, told Roll Call in early June, “When they learn about this face-chewing situation in Florida, hopefully that will change a few minds.” Congress drafted a new bill, Paul dropped his opposition, and in early July President Obama signed it into law as an amendment to the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act.
Mephedrone and MDPV—the synthetic stimulants most common in bath salts—are now Schedule I controlled substances, along with LSD and heroin, and selling the drug is punishable by up to 20 years in prison.
Back in Miami, the media circus continued in early June with the arrival of attorney and publicity hound Gloria Allred. She briefly blew into town to represent her new client, Rudy Eugene’s girlfriend, Yovonka Bryant. Why Bryant needed a high-priced attorney was a mystery. The only suspect in the case was dead. The real reason for Allred’s visit was to address what she called an important issue: Miami’s cannibalism problem.
Standing next to Bryant in the Sofitel hotel ballroom, Allred addressed a room full of journos. “Yovonka and I are very concerned about the issue of cannibalism,” she said. “Cannibalism is a serious issue and is very dangerous to the health and well-being of both the cannibal and the victim.”
As I continued to investigate the Rudy Eugene incident, it became increasingly obvious I was witnessing a classic drug panic. All drug-scare stories follow a similar pattern. A new drug is vilified by reporters who present extreme examples as the norm. Exaggerated claims are made about the drug’s prevalence. And the media take it from there.
Something had to be missing from the Miami Zombie media accounts, some other factor such as an undiagnosed mental illness or a history of violence. I ventured into Eugene’s home community to find out.
North Miami Beach is an unassuming blue-collar suburb of low-slung, pastel-colored ranch houses that is home to the second-largest Haitian community in America. In the beauty parlors and Caribbean restaurants, Creole is spoken nearly as often as English. Rudy Eugene grew up here, attending North Miami Beach High, where he played football for the school team, the Chargers, and dreamed of becoming a professional athlete one day.
When the news broke about what happened on the MacArthur Causeway, North Miami Beach residents were surprised. Eugene’s friends had never heard of bath salts other than the crystals you put in a tub of hot water. They insisted the only drug Eugene used was marijuana. He even refused to take Tylenol for a headache, they said. Eugene’s criminal record bore this out. He’d been arrested four times for marijuana offenses, including when police apprehended him in 2008 in South Beach after finding 39 bags of pot stuffed down his trousers. He had no history of experimenting with more exotic substances.
His friends painted a portrait of an introspective, deeply spiritual person. He was a quiet man, they said, a pious man, a person without pretension. They called him Preacher because he often shared Bible verses on his Facebook page, but he was no saint.
There were moments when the other Rudy Eugene appeared: mean, paranoid, someone who was convinced the world was out to get him.
This was the secret Eugene carried around, the one thing he wanted to share with his Bible-study buddies but was too scared to because he thought they wouldn’t understand. After his ex-wife, Jenny Ductant, witnessed his dark side, she promptly filed for divorce, saying she feared for her personal safety.
“I wouldn’t say he had mental problems, but he always felt like people were always against him. No one was for him,” Ductant told Miami TV station Local 10.
Another friend, Erica Smith, a former roommate, said that days before his death Eugene told her brother that he was depressed and contemplating suicide.
On a Sunday morning at the Seventh Avenue Flea Market in North Miami, the place was almost empty. Inside the high-ceilinged warehouse, peeling barber chairs stood empty waiting for clients. Eugene used to be a regular at the flea market, where he hawked homemade CDs of himself performing rap music. He wanted to become a hip-hop star. The reality of his life was that he was an intermittently employed car washer and burger flipper who sold pot to make ends meet—a bum, as his mother, Ruth Charles, a hardworking nurse’s assistant, reportedly called him.
The flea market’s owner, Gyula Kis, is an elderly white-haired Hungarian with blue eyes and a pistol strapped to his waist. He remembers Eugene but doesn’t want to talk about him because it’s bad for business, though he does confirm that in 2007 the police had to be called to the flea market after Eugene started a fight with former pro pugilist Melton Bowen. The one-time mixed martial artist and heavyweight boxing champion turned DJ was blasting music at a booth he’d rented when Eugene asked him to change the track. Bowen refused, so Eugene took off his shirt and balled his fists. “I’m gonna kill you,” he told Bowen. Bowen was flabby, but he still knew how to throw a right hook, which sent Eugene crashing to the ground.
More shameful, however, was another incident that happened in 2004, when Eugene threatened to kill his own mother. He was tearing apart his mother’s living room when he screamed at her, “I’ll put a gun to your head and kill you.” Melimon Charles, his stepfather, called the police. After the officers arrived, Eugene’s mother told them, “Thank God you’re here. He would have killed me.” The police ordered Eugene to calm down, and when he wouldn’t, they tasered him.
The officers at the scene could tell Eugene wasn’t well. “He had that thousand-yard stare, staring right into you,” one officer remembered. Eugene’s friends refuse to believe he had a mental illness—something regarded as a stigma among many Haitians. Better to blame evil spirits; better to blame the girlfriend, Yovonka Bryant.
“It was all Yovonka’s fault,” said one of Eugene’s friends who asked that she remain anonymous. “Rudy only knew her for four months. She changed him. She was the one who turned him into a zombie.” (Bryant did not respond to Playboy’s request for comment.)
Eugene’s memorial service was at the Grace Funeral Home on June 9, 2012. His mother couldn’t hide her sadness, not just at her son’s death but also because, as The Miami Herald first reported, four churches refused to bury him. The Haitian Christian community in North Miami had turned its back because of the voodoo rumors surrounding Eugene.
Yet, as it soon became clear, believing that voodoo caused Rudy Eugene to attack Ronald Poppo was no more an example of magical thinking than was blaming bath salts.
A month after the gruesome attack on the MacArthur Causeway, the Miami-Dade County medical examiner released the final toxicology report. A second laboratory independently confirmed the results.
No bath salts were found in Eugene’s system.
“Within the limits of current technology by both laboratories,” the medical examiner’s office said in a statement, “marijuana is the only drug identified in the body of Mr. Rudy Eugene.”
A number of elements present on the day of the attack might in combination unravel the mystery. A fair amount of circumstantial evidence suggests Eugene suffered from an undiagnosed mental illness—his obsessive religiosity, his persecution complex, his violent outbursts and his suicidal impulses.
“When I read about the case, the first thing I thought was that he was a paranoid schizophrenic,” says Wade Silverman, a Miami-based forensic psychologist. “There is often a religious element in schizophrenic behavior. Paranoid schizophrenics often hear voices from God.”
Environmental factors could also have played a role. What about the 90-degree heat and the three-mile trek across a concrete causeway with no shade? The sun can do strange things to a man’s mind. And then there was the marijuana. Marijuana use on its own can’t explain extreme aggression, but a growing body of medical evidence says pot can sometimes trigger aggression in the mentally ill.
Many different elements might have clarified what went down that afternoon, but in an act of mass hysteria, everybody focused on the one factor that wasn’t there: bath salts.
“We as a society have a preoccupation with drugs as evil,” says Silverman. “It’s less threatening for people to believe that some evil substance caused this incident because the alternative explanation is too frightening—that some people can act like this on their own without drugs being involved.”
Surely now the frenzy would subside, given the final toxicology reports.
No such luck. Armando Aguilar returned to the media spotlight to challenge the medical examiner’s findings.
“I still believe there was something else in Rudy Eugene’s system other than marijuana that the medical examiner didn’t detect,” says the union chief (who will step down at the end of his term). “There was definitely something there, something we just can’t test for yet, maybe a new form of bath salts or maybe even a completely new compound that we don’t yet know about.”
Why is Aguilar continuing to fan the flames? As a former drug cop, he must know that no bath salts epidemic exists in Miami. He must know that the number of arrests for the possession or dealing of bath salts in Miami in the past 12 months is zero.
“Until certain people started speculating about bath salts, I’d never even heard about this drug, and neither had most of the Miami Police Department,” says department spokesman Delrish Moss. “In the city of Miami we have cocaine, marijuana, heroin and, to a lesser extent, a number of club drugs like ecstasy, but bath salts weren’t even on our radar.”
“I don’t know where the union chief is getting this from,” he adds.
I started to suspect that Aguilar’s real agenda wasn’t about bath salts. Was this more about the Department of Justice investigation of the Miami PD? Were bath salts a convenient bogeyman to justify police officers using deadly force to subdue drug users?
The only facts we are left with about Rudy Eugene are these: Psychiatrists cannot diagnose schizophrenia postmortem. Toxicologists cannot test for a new drug unless they know its chemical structure. Whatever brought the Miami Zombie to life will probably never be fully known.
Additional reporting by Lera Gav