So it was no surprise when Padilla suddenly vanished in the summer of 1976. She had saved enough money from housekeeping jobs to buy a plane ticket to New York City. "Overnight she was gone," says her older brother, Radames Mercado. "She didn't even leave a note."

Mercado heard from his sister only once more. Two years after she left, an envelope arrived. Inside was a photo of Padilla holding a baby girl. There was no letter, just an image of Padilla, dressed in a scarlet blouse, holding her daughter Bernisa against a blood-red background.

The peaceful photo belied the chaos of Padilla's new life in the United States. Upon arriving in New York, she'd begun dating a much older Puerto Rican mechanic named Miguel Cruz. Within months, Padilla was pregnant. But before she could even give birth to Bernisa, Cruz was arrested for his role in the rape of two women. He wasn't in the family photo because he was serving two years in prison. Padilla left Cruz, but any plans for a better life ended at the hands of the next man she met.

Bernisa (right) and Gloria sit with Nuñez on the back of his converted U-Haul.
Courtesy of Miami-Dade Police Department
Bernisa (right) and Gloria sit with Nuñez on the back of his converted U-Haul.
Bernisa Davis (left) and Gloria Hampton are helping cops track down Nuñez.
Claire Nelson
Bernisa Davis (left) and Gloria Hampton are helping cops track down Nuñez.

He called himself Rafael Guzman, but his real name was Jorge Walter Nuñez. Like Cruz, he was nearly ten years older than Padilla and had a penchant for trouble. Nuñez's father had left Peru to become a successful tailor in New York City. When his son turned 18, he sent for him. Nuñez arrived in the States July 1, 1967. His passport photo shows a handsome, clean-shaven kid wearing a suit and tie like a gentleman.

Nuñez was anything but. He immediately overstayed his three-month tourist visa. By the time he was 23, he had established a pattern of lying and stealing. On Christmas Eve 1972, he was arrested in Jamaica, Queens, for grand larceny. He gave his name as Jorge Nunz, the first of a dozen pseudonyms.

How he met Nilsa Padilla is unclear. But her family says it was the potbellied Peruvian with a wild beard who introduced her to a life of hard boozing. The two were already together when Nuñez was arrested in November 1979, again for grand larceny. In May 1980, he was arrested a third time for stealing.

None of the arrests stuck, however. And so it was that Nuñez and Padilla, with Bernisa and newborn Gloria in tow, showed up smelling of alcohol at her cousin Maggie Soto's front door in Hartford, Connecticut — where she'd moved with her family — during the summer of 1981.

"I didn't like him at all," Soto says of Nuñez. "He was always drunk." He also brought out the worst in Padilla. She drank heavily, slipping into dark moods. One day, Padilla drunkenly hit 4-year-old Bernisa on the head with a brush, causing a gash. Soto told her: "If you ever do that again, I'm calling the cops on you."

Nuñez and Padilla left town shortly afterward in an old U-Haul truck he'd turned into a makeshift camper by cutting a window in the rear. They drove down the coast to Florida.

When Soto next saw her cousin, it was three years later, in 1984. Padilla was in worse shape than ever. She now had three kids: Bernisa, Gloria, and a baby named Alicia. But the family was on the run from the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.

When Soto asked why, Padilla pointed to Gloria's shoddily bandaged left hand. Nuñez had dropped a heavy piece of metal on the 3-year-old — by accident, he said — mangling her thumb. The two drunks had never taken the toddler to the hospital.

There were other signs that Padilla's life was spinning out of control. Once, during a shouting match in front of Soto's house, Nuñez shoved her into the U-Haul. When Soto went inside the camper, Padilla said she was tired of Nuñez and drank to numb her depression. When Soto asked why she didn't leave, Padilla answered that she had no money.

Nuñez, meanwhile, made no effort to hide his hatred. "I'm fed up with her," he told Soto in Spanish. "One of these days, I'm going to kill her."


Memories of murder don't fade, Gloria Hampton says. They remain as sharp as the night her mother's blood covered the camper floor. But they do break like windows in an abandoned warehouse, falling out one by one, leaving black patches that can never be restored.

Without Bernisa, the blackness might have overtaken Gloria. But between the two of them, the sisters can still bring that night — and that nightmare — back to life. It is a painful séance.

Like most evenings in the camper, it began with Budweiser and a bitter argument. When the family returned to Florida in 1984, Nuñez parked the U-Haul on Virginia Key Beach. Officially, the island was closed, but that made it only more inviting to the drifters, drunks, and druggies who pitched their tents on its filthy shore.

By the spring of 1985, Nuñez and Padilla were at home among the alcoholics and addicts. But Nuñez was hiding a horrible secret from her. Whenever Padilla sent him on errands, he would take Bernisa with him in his van and molest her.

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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

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

@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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