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.

At the same time he was spending money with abandon, Paz was spending less and less time at home, leaving Alicia to take care of his kids. "My father was always in the restaurant, so we used to go to the movies together," Teresa says of her stepmother. "She was the one telling us to 'Do your homework, do your homework,' like she was our real mom. She used to take us to school and pick us up. She'd have to go to school two or three times because we were into sports. My father, he was never there."

A troubling economic cycle developed. The money that May brought never lasted more than a few months. And when it disappeared, so did the things -- the trips, the cars, even the food -- it had bought. The horses were already long gone by October 1993, when Paz lost the Mazda truck. The restaurant was a bust. Soon he'd sold the house, too.

By the following March, Paz had spent $500,000 in less than two years. With nothing left to tide the family over till May and the next check from the lottery, Alicia took a job at a fast-food restaurant to make ends meet. "She worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken," Teresa reports. "She'd give us free chicken sometimes. My father, I don't remember what he was doing. I don't think he was doing anything. He'd disappear for weeks at a time. He wouldn't tell us where he was going, he'd just go for a couple of weeks."

Alicia stayed on at KFC until May, and the money, rolled around again. With it Paz returned, along with his spending habits. The repossessed cars were replaced by a new Cadillac DeVille. He and Alicia purchased another, more modest townhouse in West Dade, overlooking the Florida Turnpike. Still, a Nissan Stanza bought in October was gone by December, and in March 1995 Paz lost the Cadillac. He was also evicted from an apartment he'd acquired and failed to pay rent on. To make ends meet, Alicia's father loaned the family $9000.

Two weeks into April, as Paz stood outside a Shell station, Alicia served him with divorce papers. A judge froze most of the 1995 lottery winnings, allowing the estranged couple $50,000 apiece. According to Teresa, Alicia quietly used some of her money to pay the private school tuition for her and her siblings. Paz chose to spend a fair chunk of his share on a $21,000 Ford Aerostar. His allowance depleted by August, he petitioned the court to release $30,000 more. The request was denied.

When the divorce became final in January of last year, Alicia was awarded 46 percent of the lottery money every year for the remaining sixteen years. A month later Paz lost the Aerostar.

Despite the money crunch, Paz had no trouble replacing Alicia with a new paramour. Even before the divorce had worked its way through the courts, he'd taken up with a fourteen-year-old named Claudia. His daughters coldly greeted the girl who would soon be their new stepmother. "My sister and I gave her a black eye in a fistfight," boasts Teresa. "I never liked her. I'd listen to Alicia when she told us what to do, I guess because she was seriously trying to help us. This lady, all she's there for is my father."

With the stabilizing influence of Alicia out of the way, Teresa recalls, Paz returned to drinking and smoking, vices she'd persuaded him to quit. Drugs even found their way into Teresa's bloodstream, according to lab tests performed when she visited the emergency room at Kendall Regional Medical Center claiming that a clock had fallen on her head. According to attorney Norman Segall, investigators from the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (now the Department of Children and Families) failed to determine exactly why Teresa tested positive for cocaine, barbiturates, opiates, and other drugs, and the girl was allowed to stay with her father.

Teresa says a rotating cast of characters -- Freddy Santana among them -- came to party at the townhouse, staying up late and often spending the night. Fearing that Santana might make sexual advances, Teresa's older sister Laura moved back in with her natural mother, and Teresa soon followed. (When Santana's name came up during court filings related to the Paz-Fleites divorce, Paz's attorney Barbara Munoz argued that Santana had not been visiting the townhouse.)

Paz, who retained custody of his son Eddie, desperately commanded his daughters to move back in with him. "He calls me up and says, 'You've got to come home and take care of Claudia. She's pregnant. You're obligated,'" Teresa remembers. "I told him I wasn't obligated to do anything.

"Sometimes I used to wish we didn't win the lottery," she goes on. "It got us together, but at the same time it got us separated. He never gave us a hug or a kiss again, or said 'I love you.' He used to say it was okay if you didn't have money, but then he changed and said that if we didn't have money, then we couldn't have this big house or these things. The lottery was good at first, I guess. But it changed to be a nightmare."

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