On Saturday, May 26, a naked Rudy Eugene was shot and killed when he failed to obey police orders to stop chewing off another man’s face. That incident on the MacArthur Causeway in Miami was followed the next weekend by another bizarre face-eating attack in Lafayette, La. where a man tired to gnaw the face of his ex-wife’s boyfriend.
The internet buzzed with rumors of a zombie apocalypse after the cannibalistic attacks hit the media.
“The more we watch zombie movies, the more we think about zombies,” said Heath Jackson, a narcotics investigator with the Escambia County Sherriff’s Office.
Flesh eating suspects that aren’t fazed by gunfire may seem like something from a sci-fi flick, but the incidents did occur. Unlike the classic “Night of the Living Dead” scenario of graveyard residents walking again or modern adaptations of zombie lore like “28 Days Later” that center on fears of a viral infection, these attacks had a more real, pharmaceutical connection. The best guess, by investigators and reporters alike, was an overdose of a synthetic version of the drug cathinone.
The synthetic cathinone is often labeled in misleading ways to avoid law enforcement seizure of inventory. The product can be labeled as “bath salts” or “plant food” and may even have a “Not for Human Consumption” warning on the packaging.
Similar to the synthetic marijuana Spice, bath salts are a commercially available drug that hides behind being a bath product in some stores and thrives in the legal grey area. These designer drugs—meaning they’re concocted in a lab—use different chemical combinations to give users a high similar to that of meth or cocaine. Bath salts can be purchased online, at head shops or even convenience stores.
Robert Quinata, a sergeant with the sheriff’s narcotics unit, stressed that the danger with designer drugs lies in an unstable and unpredictable chemical breakdown. “You never know what you’re going to get.”
Bath salts use variations of the chemicals MDPV and/or mephedrone which are synthetic versions of a cathinone, a Schedule 1 controlled substance under the Controlled Substances Act that occurs naturally in the Khat plant from East Africa. Bath salts manufacturers circumvent current bans by slightly varying the chemical compounds in their products while still giving users a high. As with crystal meth, each batch of bath salts can contain any number of harmful chemicals and no two batches are exactly alike.
Bath salts stimulate the central nervous system. Typically found in crystal or powder form, the drugs can cause increased heart rate, high body temperature, chest pain, psychosis and suicidal thoughts. The paranoia and panic that set in during the initial high have been reported to return even after the user is no longer taking the drug.
“It only takes that little bit of chemical to change you,” said Jackson.
Calls regarding bath salts have skyrocketed in the past three years, according to U.S. Poison Control Centers—from zero calls in 2009 to 2,237 calls in 2011 alone. Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi has been advocating prohibitive legislation for synthetic drugs with earnest for the last year. Gov. Rick Scott signed House Bill 1175 in March, which greatly expanded the list of banned chemical compounds. Despite the new legislation, law enforcement and medical professionals are still concerned with the rate at which chemists can find new, still-legal chemical compounds to create bath salts with and avoid punishment.
Since the drug is still in its infancy locally, the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office hopes that education will deter it from becoming a trend.
“We’re hoping to keep it from getting as bad as other areas,” said Quinata.
The publicity surrounding the Miami attack has sparked local awareness about the drug. The sheriff’s office has seen an uptick in calls about bath salts and a decrease in usage, according to Jackson.
Much like prescription drug abuse, synthetic drug usage is propelled by ease of access and trends. The narcotics officers explain that even though shop owners treat the products like controlled substances by keeping them behind the counter, any suspected drugs must still be sent to the state before an investigation can occur. Because of the complications that come with tracking down designer drugs, the sheriff’s office has tried to educate shop owners about bath salts before they seize their inventory in hopes that the shops would stop selling them.
Jackson and Quinata warn that teenagers and young adults are more likely to experiment with synthetic drugs like bath salts than others. Designer drugs are commercially available and because they aren’t regulated by the FDA or DEA kids don’t have to be 18 to purchase them. Keeping kids off of these drugs is the number one priority for the narcotics unit when it comes to bath salts.
“We will drop whatever it is that we’re doing,” said Jackson, “if we have a chance to save a kid.”
Law enforcement is trained to respond to every call with the highest level of caution and the emergence of so-called zombie attacks requires the same level of response. Although the chemicals themselves may not push a user to cannibalism, an overdose of unstable stimulant drugs could create a dangerous situation for both the user and the law enforcement responding to a call.
When responding to a bath salts call, officers can’t make any assumptions as to the level of violence they may encounter. Erratic and violent behavior from citizens is always a possibility and may be exacerbated by drug usage. Each case is approached with extreme caution.
“We don’t know what ordinary is for them,” said Jackson.
Although the reports from Miami and Lafayette, La. are harrowing, that type of violent outburst is not about to become a pandemic. However, as the chemists who make synthetic cathinone cook up ways to slip around new legislation, the potential for more bath salt crimes remains a reality.
“You’re always going to get people who don’t heed the warnings,” said Quinata.
Much to the Internet’s chagrin, the zombie apocalypse has not actually begun. However, the press surrounding bath salts has the sheriff’s office hopeful that the citizens in the area will be vigilant about reporting any suspicions they have about the usage or sale of bath salts directly to law enforcement or anonymously to Crimestoppers. Despite the attention created by the zombie rumors, Sergeant Quinata is glad that the public is hearing about bath salts because fear leads to education on this new drug abuse issue.
“I want them to be scared.”
To report Zombie Attacks or other bath salt crimes:
Escambia County Sheriff’s Office