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.

Assistant State Attorney Larry McMillan protested to County Court Judge Jose M. Rodriguez that Claudia's testimony was "almost completely inconsistent to what she told the detective on the day of the incident."

Confronted with the discrepancy, Claudia stated that Hernandez must be lying.

The judge denied bond for Paz, who will remain incarcerated until his trial, tentatively scheduled for November 3.

Two weeks after the bond hearing, and just over a month after the incident, Erica, through her mother, sued Paz for emotional distress, battery, assault, and false imprisonment, seeking damages in excess of $15,000.

"They are after his money," argues Fred Robbins, Paz's lead defense attorney in the criminal case. "They jumped on filing a lawsuit -- they couldn't do it fast enough. These people have nothing, and they are extremely jealous of Bernardo's wife, who lived in a nice house."

At the bond hearing, Claudia also testified that her sister had come to her previously accusing Paz of rape, only to admit the charge wasn't true. "She said she couldn't stand to see me happy with my husband," Claudia declared. "And what she wanted was to separate me from him and see if I could help ... to see if I could give money to her.... According to her, she wanted me to help her buy clothes, to buy shoes."

Only one week before her husband's arrest, Claudia added, she and Paz had confronted her father about an ugly incident from her past. When she was twelve years old, she told the court, her father had "violated" her against her will. The pregnancy and the child that resulted had long been blamed on a fictitious boyfriend, but now Claudia and Paz had announced their intention to file criminal charges.

This threat, Robbins posits, may have inspired Erica and her mother to set a trap. "Just think: They get rid of Bernardo so his father-in-law is not in trouble any more, and they get a shot at the money," the attorney speculates.

Robbins declined to let his client speak to New Times. "If we lose this case," he notes, "he can go to prison for a long, long time."

At 30 seconds apiece, the Florida Lottery's winner awareness commercials are just long enough to achieve a happy ending. Families recall how in the old days they pinched pennies and bought everything on sale. No longer preoccupied with bargain-hunting, they dance and they smile. While it's difficult to tack a stereotypically happy ending to the saga of Bernardo Paz's family, the Lotto's promise of a better life actually did come true for some family members.

Regla Fleites settled her lawsuit against Paz on April 23. Noting that Paz "never paid a single dollar in child support, either before or after winning the lottery," attorney Norman Segall won a modification of the couple's 1989 divorce, compelling Paz to pay his client $99,000 in past-due child support and legal fees. Additionally, Paz must pay for health insurance for Laura and Teresa and provide $2000 in child support every month until both daughters turn nineteen.

While Fleites retains custody of her daughters, fourteen-year-old Eddie still lives with Claudia in the house near the turnpike. His custody could revert back to Fleites, pending the result of a "home study" to be undertaken by state officials. "Agents of the court inspect each house to see which one is better for the child," explains Segall. "We fully expect that they'll decide in favor of Regla's house over a house where he's being raised by an unemployed pregnant teenager whose unemployed husband is in jail."

With the money from the settlement, Fleites moved out of the Hialeah trailer park where she'd been living and into a new house in southwest Dade. Framed pictures of her daughters hang on a white wall in the living room. There's a third daughter now, fathered by the man she's living with, a tile worker whom Teresa describes as "pretty cool."

After leaving Paz, Alicia moved back in with her parents and now lives the life of a normal 22-year-old. While she has been conservative with her first two lottery checks, she did spend a little money on braces to straighten out her teeth. Having earned her GED, she enrolled at Miami-Dade Community College, where she's studying to become a midwife. She declined to be interviewed for this story, saying that many of her classmates don't know about her history with Paz, or about the lottery money. Over the next fifteen years, she stands to collect $2.4 million.

"Now she has friends," boasts Teresa, who remains in close contact with her former stepmother. "That's something that when she was with us she wasn't able to have, because she had to raise us. Now she has lots of friends, and she's finally able to do what she wants to do."

The future of Paz's current wife doesn't seem nearly as bright. A recent dinnertime visit to Claudia Paz's townhouse found it empty. A lamp near the front door was shattered. Dogs thrashed around in the chest-high grass in the back yard, contained by a weathered wooden fence. "They go away for three weeks at a time, just leaving the dogs alone there," said a neighbor who asked not to be identified. "Sometimes I toss meat at them because I feel so bad." The neighbor advised a nighttime return, saying that Eddie Paz could often be seen after midnight, riding his go-cart around the subdivision's streets.

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