Miami Cold Case Murder Solved With Recovered Memories

Miami Cold Case Murder Solved With Recovered Memories
Illustration by Bastien Lecouffe Deharme

Hissing and spitting like an animal, high tide surged across the sands of Virginia Key. Dark waves broke over the jagged shore and scattered flotsam on the stones like tea leaves at the bottom of a cup. When the water receded, it left more than the usual behind.

As dawn bleached the black skies above Miami on April 4, 1985, something shone unnaturally in the early-morning light. A local beachcomber traced the glints to a bulky trash bag wedged between two boulders. He poked a finger through the dark green plastic. Something soft and pale was inside. It was human skin.

When Miami-Dade police arrived and cut open the bag, out spilled a corpse — or part of one, at least. Like an ancient sculpture attacked by vandals, the young woman had been shorn of her head and limbs. It was the second such discovery in 24 hours. The day before, two fishermen had tried to rescue what they thought was an injured manatee near Miami Seaquarium. It turned out to be a man's rib cage. Both bodies appeared to have been sawed apart with the same instrument. Cops nicknamed the couple "Tommy and Theresa Torso."

Nilsa Padilla's torso, wrapped in a green trash bag, washed up on Virginia Key in 1985.
Courtesy of Miami-Dade Police Department
Nilsa Padilla's torso, wrapped in a green trash bag, washed up on Virginia Key in 1985.
Nilsa Padilla holds baby Bernisa in a 1977 photo.
Courtesy of Miami-Dade Police Department
Nilsa Padilla holds baby Bernisa in a 1977 photo.

Over the next week, body parts appeared all around Biscayne Bay. The woman's thigh washed up in front of a hotel in Sunny Isles Beach. Her leg landed ashore on Fisher Island. And her head was found floating in Government Cut. It was the height of the cocaine-cowboys era, and brutal murders weren't uncommon. But the sickening string of body parts stoked fears of a serial killer torturing the city with what Miami Herald reporter Edna Buchanan called a "grisly puzzle."

"Police... wonder why no one appears to have reported the couple missing," Buchanan wrote. Without leads, cops desperately tried to cull fingerprints from the female victim's one recovered hand.

Instead, it would be more than a quarter-century before police caught a break.

"Back then we were finding so many dope murders," says retired Miami-Dade homicide detective John Parmenter. "We all thought [the bodies] had something to do with drugs."

He pauses and adds quietly, "How wrong we were."


Charles McCully receives at least one call per week, usually Fridays. The phone in the Miami-Dade Police Department's Cold Case Squad rings, and the hulking sergeant with a gravelly voice and the nickname "Buck" warily picks up. Usually it's someone looking for a long-lost family member. Occasionally, it's a drunk concocting a bogus murder story. One guy in particular calls regularly from California and disguises his voice just long enough to get the veteran cop's hopes up.

So when Gloria Hampton walked into McCully's office in the summer of 2010 with a story stranger than fiction, the sergeant was suspicious.

"I just need somebody to listen to me," Gloria pleaded. The short 29-year-old with wide hips, tan skin, and curly hair had been through years of psychiatric therapy, she said. From the haze of her hurtful childhood, however, she had pulled one particular memory and polished it until clear.

"I saw my father kill my mother when I was 4 years old," she said. "He put her body into an army-green bag."

McCully was still skeptical. Cops don't put much faith in recovered memories, and these were 25 years old. But after Gloria left, he cracked open musty boxes of cold-case files. He flipped through yellowing photographs and police reports for hours before pulling out a thin binder that hadn't been touched in years. It was the unsolved murder from April 4, 1985. And inside was a photo of a woman's body in an army-green bag.

DNA analysis quickly confirmed that Gloria's mother, Nilsa Padilla, was the murder victim known for decades as "Theresa Torso." Gloria's father, Jorge Walter Nuñez, instantly became the only suspect. For Miami-Dade police, it was a breakthrough in one of the department's oldest and most vexing cases. For Gloria, it was salvation.

"They thought I was crazy," she says of the cops, foster parents, and caseworkers who ridiculed her claims for years. "Now they know I'm not."

South Florida has long been a refuge for drifters, drug dealers, and the deranged. On average, at least three corpses join the ranks of Miami's nameless dead every year. Rarely do police uncover their identities.

Nilsa Padilla is the exception. Nearly 30 years after their mother's death, Gloria and her sister, Bernisa Davis, have helped solve one of Miami's most mysterious slayings. But as cops would soon discover, their incredible survival story is also a dark tale of rape, madness, multiple murders, and revenge like no other in this city's sordid history.

Despite the two sisters' painful testimony, however, one final piece is still missing from the grisly puzzle: Jorge Walter Nuñez.

Padilla's killer remains at large.


Nilsa Padilla's short life was littered with beer cans and bad men.

She was born August 11, 1958, in the poor Puerto Rican fishing town of Cataño, near San Juan. Her parents were alcoholics whose binges left Padilla and her four siblings to wander the windswept malecón for days at a time. It didn't take Padilla long to get into trouble.

"My cousin wasn't a good influence on us," says Maggie Soto, who grew up with Padilla in Cataño. Padilla was plain but attractive, with dark hair and eyes like black marbles. What she lacked in beauty she made up for in boldness. "Boys would look at us and she would immediately walk to them, tell them her name, tell them that we were all single," Soto says. Padilla would also steal candy from the corner store to give to her cousins. Like the storms that swept into Cataño from the sea, the troubles that would sink Nilsa were already visible on the horizon. "She was the wildest," Soto says.

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25 comments
hclarke1
hclarke1

This is kind of mindblowing. I remember vacationing in Miami that week in 1985 as a ten year old approaching eleven: and this was one of the sensational stories on the local news that week...those body parts floating all over Biscayne Bay.

CheckpointCharlie73
CheckpointCharlie73 topcommenter

So the point is that we need a "three strikes and you get Life in Prison" policy for all these derelicts and small time criminals. 

corkywedges
corkywedges

Wait, I'm confused. The headline said "recovered memories" but they were there all along. She went through years of therapy because no one believed her. That is not "recovered memories." 

The reason recovered memories are so undependable is because they are almost always constructed years and years after the event. Most good shrinks will tell you that we really don't forget when horrible things happen to us. This girl had those memories for years. She didn't suddenly remember them. 

lenny14
lenny14

The story is interstingly sad. We don't know the "back story" behind the people we meet every day. I do know the story of a woman who grew up, the only daughter of 6, who was repeatedly raped by her brothers for years. She does live on, however. I have talked with other people who survived family abuse, because I am one myself. When you go for treatment, you talk about how you yourself were motivated to do things the way they were done. You hopefully learn that you have to live with your own pain to survive, and you can. I hope the two sisters reconcile their past, and merge it with their future. 

georgieart
georgieart

Wow! If this isn't a survival story in it's truest form, I don't know what is. My hat comes off to these surviving sisters and I applaud them for doing their best in overcoming all obstacles regardless of the fears and issues that their experiences have left as a deep scar in their lives. It's hard to move forward when you have this constant movie playing in the files of your subconscious mind, but you learn to just put one foot in front of the other. One step at a time.

lnoproblema102
lnoproblema102

So, the tide was ..."hissing and spitting like a wild animal...". What sort of animal hisses and spits just like the tide? A Blue-Footed Booby, perhaps? A Flatworm? A Giant African Snail? A Poodle? The story has so many REAL horrors there isn't any need to tart it up with horrible writing. This "author" should stick to reporting on Elvis sightings...

run.randrand
run.randrand

EDNA--IS THIS Y-O-U TRYING TO REAPPEAR IN A CHEAP PUFF-OF-SMOKE".ARE YOU A KILLER COME-BACK --- ( Hahahahahahah!)--IN CRIME JOURNALISM???! --"BACK IN THE BRASS BOTTLE, EVIL DJINN"!!!--(somebody get the brass stopple before she gets out and does m-o-r-e community mayhem...!!!!).......

CMndz
CMndz

I first saw this story on America's Most Wanted over the summer. Just tragic. 


dwd762010
dwd762010

This is a very sad story, some of the statements are not correct tho. The writer should have interview all persons that are mentioned

Chris Cvnt
Chris Cvnt

the story is very tragic yes but the author deserves to take a journalism class, the writing is just awful.

Jon Achaval
Jon Achaval

Once more, outstanding reporting. This author deserves a Pulitzer.

Jimena Zeballos
Jimena Zeballos

really well written story. I hope that that cretin gets a horrible end for all the pain he has inflicted on them. My heart goes out to them.

Erin Barber
Erin Barber

Yes, it was beautifully written, But what a God-awful life these two young women had.. Horrific. So sad.

Anthony Pinzone
Anthony Pinzone

Wow that is a wild story... best of luck to those girls and their families.

Bernisa
Bernisa

@corkywedges This is Bernisa you are correct our memories never had forgotten, and DCF never checked up on the address on my Birth Cert. to see if they could of return us with our family since my birth father was still living at that address on my Birth Cert til i was 16 year old waiting for me to return one day.

Since during aroung the beginning beinging put into DCF or HRS system and I didn't speak much english but instead I had Drew so many picture of what had happen to my mom and they still didn't do anything about it.

CheckpointCharlie73
CheckpointCharlie73 topcommenter

@corkywedges You are correct. What the story should have said is that DCF workers never investigated or documented the claims of these girls, and that the detectives they first met also did not care enough to check. In other words, "Incompetent Workers Ignore Pleas from Orphans."

MikeMillerMiami
MikeMillerMiami

@dwd762010 Like what? The only person mentioned in the story who was not interviewed at length is Jorge Walter Nunez, the suspected murderer. 

run.randrand
run.randrand

@Jon Achaval  LIKE EDNA BUCHANAN-SMITH?????!!!!--GOOOOD FORBID! "MY LOOK-ALIKE EVIL TWIN'S" BUST AND WANTED POSTERS STILL ADORN A POLICE CLOSET DOWNTOWN BECAUSE SHE "JUST ACCEPTED AS FACT EVERYTHING HER COP FRIENDS TOLD HER"...AT--A FEW FOLKS EXPENSE, OF COURSE...!

Msanthropod
Msanthropod

If you haven't written a true crime book, you definitely should. Top notch writing!

dwd762010
dwd762010

I am David Davis Bernisa's ex husband. There are several inaccuarys in the story. You did not do any fact checking on your part to make sure what you printed was correct. I was not a orphan nor did I force Bernisa to have children.Both comment hurt my family members The purpose of this post is not to take away from the pain both ladies went threw. But to correct you Mike Miller

MikeMillerMiami
MikeMillerMiami

@dwd762010 David, my apologies for the error about your parents. It has been fixed online and we will run a correction in next week's paper.

 
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