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.

Though she was no longer responsible for the care of Paz's' children, Alicia continued to stop by Regla Fleites's house to visit her former stepdaughters. On one visit, she gave Fleites her attorney's business card.

Fleites promptly sued Paz for back child support.

Just after 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday, April 9 of this year, Daniel Ogden, a supervisor for the Florida Division of Forestry's fire department, was driving north along Krome Avenue near the Miccosukee bingo hall when he spotted a silver car backed into some woods on the east side of the road, just north of a makeshift boat ramp. Aware that one or two stolen cars are dumped in these woods every month, and that one had recently been involved in a fire, Ogden rolled his truck to a stop about 25 feet away and radioed the Florida Highway Patrol.

From the cab of his truck, Ogden could see a shirtless man sitting in the passenger's seat of the silver car. A bottle of Budweiser rested on the roof above his head. The bare foot of a second person could be seen hanging down behind the open passenger's door.

"He looked startled," Ogden would later state in a sworn deposition, describing the moment when Bernardo Paz first noticed him. "He jumped out of the car and he was nude and he had something white in his hand, looked like a T-shirt or something. And then he started wiping himself [in the groin and on his legs]."

Paz, Ogden later testified, got back into his car and started to drive off, but then seemed to think better of it and pulled up alongside the forestry truck. The second person in the car, Ogden now saw, was a young girl, who was pulling down a denim dress as if to cover herself. When it became clear that Paz spoke little English, Ogden radioed a colleague to come translate. The girl, the firefighters learned, was Erica, the sixteen-year-old sister of Paz's new wife Claudia. In Spanish, she tearfully told Ogden's colleague that she had been raped for two hours, that Paz had a knife, and that he had tried to kill her. She was six weeks pregnant at the time.

Metro-Dade police detectives who were summoned to the scene by the highway patrol found Paz's T-shirt and an eight-inch butcher knife hidden in the grass near where Ogden had first spied the car. According to Det. Ralph Hernandez, when questioned at Metro's Sexual Crimes Bureau, Paz denied assaulting Erica. Initially, he also denied having been naked at the boat ramp; he subsequently changed his story to say that he'd stripped down in order to go to the bathroom. The knife, he asserted, was for protection against animals and snakes.

Hernandez nonetheless charged Paz with two counts of battery and one count each of armed sexual battery, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and lewd and lascivious behavior. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison. He has pleaded not guilty.

Paz initially applied for a public defender, stating that he had no assets and no income aside from $170 per week in food stamps. He made no mention of his lottery winnings.

At a pretrial bond hearing in May, Detective Hernandez reported Erica's version of events: She had planned to sleep over at her sister's house, as she'd done in the past. At 3:00 a.m. they had retired for the night, Erica to a guest room, Claudia and Paz to their own room.

"The defendant came into [Erica's] bedroom with some sort of string on -- she couldn't describe it," Hernandez testified, reconstructing for the court what the girl had told him. "It was some sort of ribbon. And [she said] that he wanted to wrap it around her stomach, which was to keep away evil spirits, to protect the fetus from having any problems. And as he was trying to do this to her, he also was trying to fondle her body. And [she said] that he would tell her things like, 'Your skin is very soft,' or whatever."

Frightened, Erica jumped out of bed and ran off to find Claudia, but when the two girls went to confront Paz, he had sped away in his car. He soon returned with a carton of cigarettes, however, and angrily denied having assaulted Erica, at which point she asked to call her mother to come pick her up. "I'll take you home," Paz ordered, according to Hernandez's retelling. Claudia demanded to go along, but Paz allegedly rebuffed her, saying, "Stay home. Don't you trust me? I'll be right back."

Instead of taking her home, Erica told Hernandez, Paz drove toward the Everglades. He wanted to have sex, she said, but she refused. It was then that he allegedly pulled the butcher knife from between the seats, held it to Erica's neck, and said he would "feed her to the alligators" if she didn't cooperate. She said he hiked up her dress, removed her underwear, stripped off his own clothes, and raped her.

Detective Hernandez testified that Claudia had corroborated her sister's story up to the point at which Paz drove off with Erica. But when Claudia took the stand at the bond hearing, she completely refuted Erica's allegations about what had happened at the house. She had heard her husband and her sister having sex in the guest bedroom, Claudia testified, and it seemed to her at the time that it was consensual. "What I heard was like when a couple is enjoying themselves," she stated. When Erica told her Paz had attempted to rape her in bed, she said, she ordered her sister out of the house. Asked why she had failed to confront Paz about sleeping with her sister, she replied that "he's taught me that a couple, regardless of how serious anything is, they discuss it once they are alone in the matrimony room."

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