05.29.12

Did Bath Salts Spark Miami’s Gruesome ‘Zombie’ Attack?

As authorities piece together why a homeless Miami man bit off another man’s face on Saturday, a popular new drug is emerging as a likely culprit. Jacqui Goddard reports on why doctors fear the substance.

Nothing like a case of roadside cannibalism to shock beachgoers out of their holiday haze.

As reports of Florida’s gruesome “zombie” attack horrify the country, police, paramedics and witnesses scramble to piece together what exactly played out along Miami’s MacArthur Causeway on Saturday—and why Rudy Eugene, a divorced 31-year-old homeless man, snapped.

One of scores of men who live in a scrappy encampment beneath the causeway, which connects downtown Miami to the city’s trendy South Beach, Eugene was as unremarkable to passersby as the other transients in the area, folks who once meant something to somebody but seemingly no more.

Now, Eugene has secured his place in infamy, earning the nickname “The Miami Zombie,” as media liken him to something out of the post-apocalyptic television drama The Walking Dead, or to the flesh-eating Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.

“Pretty gruesome, that’s for sure,” said eyewitness Larry Vega of the scene he encountered as he cycled across the causeway, where a naked Eugene was seen lying on top of another man, tearing his face to pieces with his teeth.

“A police officer climbed over the divider and got in front of him and said ‘get off’ and told him several times, and the guy just stood his head up like that with a piece of flesh in his mouth and growled,” Vega told WSVN news channel. “He was ripping into his face with his teeth, he was ripping his skin, his neck. He had him held down. The guy couldn’t move and he was tearing into his flesh…just kept eating the other guy away.”

‘They are seeing monsters, soldiers trying to kill them, and they’re extremely delusional,’ says Dr. Mark Ryan of bath-salt users.

Eugene was shot dead by a police officer, after initial shots into his body failed to even prompt a reaction. His victim, who has been identified as 65-year-old Ronald Poppo, also homeless, was taken to hospital in critical condition, with 75 percent of his face gone. Emergency personnel have described his injuries as among the worst they have ever seen. Vega said all that was left of the man’s visage was “a blob of blood.”

Poppo himself has a 25-year arrest record that includes a number of alcohol-related issues, trespasses, and burglaries. He has reportedly been homeless since around 1983.

With Eugene dead and his victim hovering between life and death, for now, police and doctors can only speculate as to what sparked the attack, though toxicology tests will perhaps shed light in a few weeks. It seems clear, however, that Eugene wasn’t in his “right mind,” and likely explanations for Eugene’s savagery have boiled down to mental illness, psychosis caused by cocaine, an extra-potent form of LSD, or “bath salts”—a new synthetic hallucinogen whose recent proliferation has been causing alarm in emergency rooms nationwide.

Video screenshot

Rudy Eugene's family responds to the attack.

The American Association of Poison Control Centers recorded 303 incidents of people ingesting, inhaling or absorbing bath salts in 2010, a figure that skyrocketed to 6,138 last year—a more than 20-fold rise. As of April 30, the AAPCC’s 57 centers have noted 1,007 cases this year, despite the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration imposing a ban last year on the chemicals used to make the drug.

Authorities first sounded the alarm against bath salts near the end of 2010, when poison control centers began registering more cases of dangerous, and sometimes fatal, encounters. Increased blood pressure, a rapid heart rate, agitation, hallucination, delusions and an extreme paranoia that often causes users to harm themselves or others are all hallmarks of adverse reactions to the drug.

Bath salts made their debut in Europe then “roared ashore like a hurricane” in the U.S., starting in Louisiana and leaving a trail of devastation around the country, Dr. Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Control Center, told The Daily Beast. Prices start at just $15 for a package advertised at between 250 and 500 milligrams of the drug.

“The particularly alarming thing we noticed when we started seeing these cases were the extremely bizarre symptoms, the superhuman strength, the hallucinations. With something like LSD, often the hallucinations users describe aren’t horrid things; what people describe on these bath salts are extremely harmful,” said Ryan. “They are seeing monsters, soldiers trying to kill them, and they’re extremely delusional. They see things going on around them that aren’t real, they firmly believe they’re talking to Jesus ... People have taken guns and shot at houses because they were hearing voices inside. There have been murders associated with bath salts, a man cutting into his own body to take out wires he thought people had put in there.”

The contents of the drug vary depending on the manufacturer, making it harder for law enforcement and medical communities to get on top of the rising menace. “It’s not just a moving target, it’s a fast-moving target,” said Ryan.

At Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, where the victim of Saturday’s causeway attack is being treated, staff also report that they are coming face to face with cases of drug-related psychosis on an increasing scale—be they from bath salts, other designer drugs such as GHB and LSD, or cocktails thereof.

“They don’t all have these outcomes, but all have one thing in common, which is excited delirium and super strength,” said Dr. Paul Adams, an emergency room physician at the hospital, who said that in one instance a 150-pound patient took on the strength of a 250-pound hulk.

“You combine bath salts, GHB, LSD or whatever and these people become uncontrollable, you can’t reason with them,” he said. “To place someone safely in restraints, it’s taken seven security guards and one doctor.”

For medical and law enforcement staff, the risk involved is intense. “About four weeks ago, we just had a guy that took seven police officers and two supervisors to restrain,” said Sergeant Javier Ortiz, vice president of Miami’s Fraternal Order of Police. “He was Tasered several times but he was still able to grab a baton from a police officer and fracture her arm.”

In many cases, the drugs cause the body temperature to rise so rapidly and so dramatically, that the user feels that he is melting from the inside, causing him to shed his clothes—another characteristic of the causeway incident, in which the attacker was seemingly impervious to the initial shots fired by police.

“He was shot but even that didn’t stop him at first, so when people say ‘You should have just Tasered him’ ... no. The police officer involved took a very good decision and neutralized the threat, for the sake of the victim, for the sake of others, and for the sake of himself.”

According to an interview with Eugene’s ex-wife, Jenny Ductant, speaking to WPLG television, the attacker had a sometime-violent disposition during their 2005 to 2007 marriage, as well as an arrest record that included battery and marijuana possession.

“I wouldn’t say he had a mental problem, but he always felt like people was against him,” said Ductant. When they divorced, he had just $2 in cash to his name, according to the divorce filing.

Whatever the causes, the incident has prompted further reflection in Miami about the city’s continuing problems with drugs and homelessness, with around 4,000 people living on city streets or in shelters—around 90 percent of them suffering from some form of mental illness.

Once the hub of the Colombian cocaine trade, a reputation that gave rise to the hit television series Miami Vice in the 1980s, the so-called Magic City may have a better handle these days on the big cartels, but the rogue manufacturers of bath salts and other designer substances now have the grip.

“If there were more resources geared towards rehab for people on drugs and with mental illness, a lot of incidents could be prevented,” said Ortiz. “In a way, society has failed to provide for the sick and the poor, and it left law enforcement to clear up the mess.”