When the secret finally broke that night in early April, it came spurting out like blood. Nuñez had left to get booze. Padilla was drinking while getting Bernisa ready for school the next morning. The quiet child with black hair and a goofy grin normally looked forward to her classes, but tonight she wasn't smiling. She told her mom about the van. The abuse. The pain.

Instead of comforting her, Padilla drunkenly smacked her daughter. "She hit me so hard my face was bleeding," Bernisa says. "Maybe she finally realized that she was with the wrong man."

If so, it was too late. When Nuñez returned around 2 a.m., Padilla was waiting for him. From their bunk bed near the ceiling, the three children saw their father strike her with the butt of a beer bottle. He hit her again and again in the head, the glass breaking within its brown paper bag. She tried to climb out the back door. For a moment, moonlight flooded into the tiny camper.

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.

"Then he shoved her back in with his foot," Bernisa remembers. "He closed the door, and then he finished her off."

Alicia was too young to do anything but scream. Bernisa and Gloria were in shock.

"I saw my mom beaten to death," Bernisa says. "My only protector in the world, and she couldn't protect herself." Neither sister remembers Nuñez cutting up the corpse, but Gloria distinctly recalls seeing her father stuff her mother's body into an army-green bag. "I remember helping him dispose of her," she says.

Police now believe Nuñez must have driven to the bridge and thrown the body parts into the ocean believing they would be swept out to sea. Instead, they circled in the current for days, washing up on beaches around Biscayne Bay. But the three girls were too afraid to say anything, so no one came looking for Padilla.

"He never mentioned her ever again," Gloria says. "Not once."

The next morning, Nuñez drove the U-Haul to a friend's house somewhere in Miami. He gave the traumatized girls mangoes to eat while he washed their mother's blood from the trailer. Then they headed south toward the Keys.

Nuñez wasn't done killing, however. A few weeks later, he turned on the girls. He drove the U-Haul to a trailer park to pick up a welfare check, Bernisa remembers. He gave the girls cereal and warned them to eat.

But Bernisa wasn't hungry. When he returned, he saw her uneaten bowl. "Who didn't finish?" he growled. Bernisa pointed at Alicia, thinking that Nuñez wouldn't hit the baby. But she was wrong.

Nuñez struck the toddler across the head. Alicia went limp. Nuñez threw the child over his shoulder. He said he was going to get help. But Bernisa and Gloria never saw their sister again. "He dumped her in the trash," Bernisa believes, "like a piece of garbage."

For the two remaining girls, the horrors were just beginning.


The girls woke to the sound of water. They had lived most of their lives next to the ocean and were used to the waves. But this sound was different. Now the ocean seemed like it was all around them. They peered over the edge of their bunk bed. Black water bubbled up toward them. The U-Haul was sinking into the sea.

Bernisa and Gloria jumped into the ink below. They waded toward the U-Haul's only door, outlined by a square of silver light. Then they pushed against the weight of the water on the other side.

Suddenly, they were in the open sea, dawn's light dancing off the waves around them. The camper was half-submerged. They paddled toward land, their tiny feet digging voraciously into the soft sand. And there was their father, standing on the shore. Saying nothing. Smiling.

The two sisters had already seen their father kill their mother and sister. But those sickening moments were nothing compared to the rape, violence, and neglect that would follow. Without Padilla around, Nuñez would become a monster. And Bernisa and Gloria would be forced to live like animals alongside him to survive.

After the 1985 murders, Nuñez had driven the white U-Haul full of secrets south along the Overseas Highway. He turned off near Mile Marker 73 into a tiny parking lot that stared out into the Atlantic. The narrow strip of sand was called Anne's Beach.

Nuñez never worked, likely living on Padilla's welfare checks. Whatever money he did have, he spent on Budweiser or marijuana. The campground was only a few hundred yards from Lower Matecumbe Key's strip malls, but Bernisa and Gloria lived like wolves. Their hair — Bernisa's dark, Gloria's blond — grew long and matted, and they survived on crabs or shrimp they found in shallow pools. "If we didn't catch anything, we didn't eat," Bernisa says.

The sexual abuse that had begun as a secret now spread into a sick obsession. Nuñez would emerge from the U-Haul, growl "Vámanos chicas," and then molest them. He raped one or both of them nearly every day for years. Sometimes Nuñez would let other men take the girls into the dirty U-Haul at the edge of the world.

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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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