Dumb Luck

In 1992 Bernardo Paz hit the Lotto, bought himself a brand-new BMW, and headed down the road to ruin. This year he finally got there.

Within a year Fleites was pregnant and the couple was floating to Miami with the Mariel boatlift. By 1983 she had two daughters, Laura and Teresa, a son, Eddie, and a seventeen-hour-a-day job packing boxes at a Hialeah factory. "For eight years I'd work from 7:00 a.m. to midnight," Fleites recalls. "After long hours I'd come home to find that he hadn't fixed the kids anything to eat or even watched them. I guess he felt that was my job."

As for Paz, Fleites says he seemed to be out of work more often than at it. He sold flowers by the side of the road for a time and helped manage an apartment building in exchange for a cut in rent. He landed a steady job at an outfit called Caribbean Security, but that came to a bad end.

According to court records, on the morning of December 9, 1985, Paz was about to finish his shift at the wholesale produce mart near Jackson Memorial Hospital when he spotted an illegally parked truck. Several witnesses testified that after Paz rapped on it with his nightstick, the driver got out, picked up the diminutive sentry by his collar, and threw him onto the truck's hood. As the driver turned to leave, Paz pulled out a revolver and shot him in the back of the leg.

Paz, who pleaded guilty to aggravated battery and to using a firearm to commit a felony, was sentenced to a community-control program for two years, followed by three years' probation.

"It was a plea of convenience," asserts Barbara Munoz, who represented Paz in that case. "He was acting out of self-defense."

In any event, Paz violated his probation in 1989 by setting out for Key West without calling his probation officer. His explanation, found in the court records: He didn't have change for the phone. Soon after, he embarked on a longer journey -- a two-month vacation to San Francisco, also unauthorized -- and failed to submit the standard probation report for the month of March 1989. When his probation officer tried to check up on him by visiting his listed address, he couldn't find him. Paz's aunt, who owned the house, reported that her nephew no longer lived there, and that in fact he'd only lived there for a few weeks while recovering from ulcer surgery.

"Please note," the probation officer stated in his report, apparently written after a post-California conversation with Paz, "that the person that the subject is referring to as his wife is actually ... a fourteen-year-old girl."

By that time Paz was 33. He had divorced Regla Fleites earlier that year, leaving her with the three children and $80 a week in child support that, according to current court records, he never paid. His new girlfriend Alicia, an immigrant who arrived from Havana with her parents in 1988, had dropped out of junior high to move in with him. In 1991, two days after her sixteenth birthday, they were married.

Fleites, meanwhile, began seeing one of Paz's cousins, Antonio Santana. That year both daughters accused Santana and his brother Freddy of sexually molesting them. A juvenile court judge issued a restraining order against both men and awarded temporary custody of all three children to Paz and his new young bride.

Alicia suddenly found herself the stepmother of three children not much younger than herself. She shuttled them to school and back, cooked their meals, washed their clothes, and bathed them. At night she did her best to help with their homework. Her husband, meanwhile, continued to scout for employment, without much success.

"We were so poor," recalls Teresa, who's now fifteen. "All five of us slept on the same bed in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. On my father's birthday, we wanted to make him a cake, but we couldn't afford a cake. So we made him a cake out of Jell-O!"

Into this life fell seven million dollars.

The odds are astounding -- nearly fourteen million to one. To win the lottery, Bernardo Paz's six computer-generated numbers had to match the six numbered Ping-Pong balls that rolled out of the 49-ball Lotto hopper in Tallahassee. Statistically, he was more likely to be zapped by lightning or perish in a plane crash than to become a millionaire.

Soon after receiving his first $252,000 check, Paz replaced his one-bedroom apartment with a $148,000 house west of Sweetwater, complete with swimming pool. He bought a car for himself and one for Alicia. He gave each of his daughters her own horse, which they boarded at a friend's stable. Trips were taken to Disney World and to the Keys.

"It was pretty cool at the beginning," Teresa remembers. "I basically could have gotten anything I wanted: bicycles, skates, necklaces, bracelets. We even went to Cuba -- the whole family. My father, if you wanted it, even if he didn't have the money, he'd try to get it for you."

And now he did have the money. When the second payment arrived the following May, Paz spent even more lavishly. He bought a $64,000 BMW 740iL, followed by a Mazda truck, an RV, and a 23-foot motorboat. He also made one investment, sinking more than $60,000 into a Little Havana restaurant.

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