"Some of it is blacked out, thank God," Bernisa says of the abuse. "If we remembered the whole thing, we probably would have gone crazy."

The abuse also began to fray the bond between the two siblings. Bernisa grew introverted, spending hours watching cartoons in the U-Haul. Her only other escape was weekly trips to a local church, but she fearfully returned after every sermon.

Gloria, by contrast, ventured out. She would disappear in the morning and return at dusk to talk to Bernisa about escaping. But Bernisa was too afraid. "I was sure that he would find us and kill us," she says.

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.

One day the sisters were scavenging near the local bait shop when a car pulled up. Out stepped a white woman with red hair that burned like a bonfire in the sunlight. "Hi," Gloria said. "Your hair is so beautiful."

"What happened to yours?" answered Geraldine Mortenson, touching Gloria's rat's nest.

"We live over there," the child answered, pointing toward the trailer. "We don't get to take a bath. We go in the ocean."

"They were skinny, skinny, skinny," Mortenson remembers. "They were like stickball bats." Mortenson and her Puerto Rican boyfriend had driven down from Hollywood for a Sunday at the beach. When Nuñez walked over, the two men chatted in Spanish and drank beers. Gloria showed Mortenson the trailer. "I couldn't believe they were living like that," she says.

Mortenson returned the next weekend with food and clothes. She kept coming, grooming the girls while her boyfriend and Nuñez got drunk. The sisters stuck to her like the crabs that clung to the U-Haul in the morning. But they never mentioned what their father did to them.

Eventually, Mortenson rented an apartment nearby. One day she invited Nuñez and the girls over. But when he barked that he was ready to leave, the girls shrank from him and hid behind Mortenson. Nuñez leaned in close and growled, "If you ever take my girls from me, I will kill you."

The next time Mortenson drove down to Anne's Beach, the U-Haul was gone.


The girls' nightmare lasted four years. Even when the police took Nuñez away, the two girls did not say what he had done to them. It would take another child to scream out.

After Gerry Mortenson tried to befriend the girls, Nuñez hid them in a public housing project in Marathon. Bernisa, now 11, began attending the local elementary school. One night she invited a friend from a few doors down for a sleepover. Nuñez got drunk as usual.

The three girls fell asleep in a single bed after locking the door to keep Nuñez out. But in the middle of the night, he forced the door open with a fork. When Bernisa's friend woke up, Nuñez was on top of her. The 10-year-old elbowed him in the chest and leapt out of bed. When she turned on the light, Nuñez was on top of his daughters, his brown shorts around his ankles.

Even then, it took a couple of days for the cops to arrest him. When they finally put Nuñez and the girls into the back of a squad car, he leaned over to them and whispered, "Don't tell them anything." It was the last thing he would ever say to them.

At the police station, officers tried to get Bernisa to talk. But the 11-year-old said Nuñez never abused them. Then the cops tried Gloria. At first she also denied it all. But then the talkative 8-year-old began to tell the horrible truth.

"She would have to keep the bedroom door locked at night to keep Daddy from coming in and touching them," reads a Monroe County Sheriff's report from March 1989.

They'd kept quiet out of terror, police realized. "If I tell you, will you let my daddy go?" Gloria fearfully asked an officer.

Police didn't let Nuñez go, at least not for four years. He was convicted of two counts of lewd and lascivious acts on children. By the time he was released in 1993, his daughters had changed their names and disappeared. But they could not change the past. And as they became teenagers, Gloria and Bernisa would relive the horrors of their childhood in their own ways.

By strange fate, it was Gerry Mortenson who took them in. At first, the two girls were placed in a foster home. But when that woman lost her license, Gloria and Bernisa were put into a children's shelter. One day Mortenson came to get them. "The shelter called me up and asked if I still wanted them," Mortenson remembers. "Of course I said yes."

Mortenson moved to Tavernier in the Keys so the girls could stay in school, yet things were far from normal. The sisters regularly visited psychiatrists to discuss the sexual abuse. Gloria and Bernisa drew pictures of their mother bathed in crayon blood. But the psychiatrists apparently didn't believe them. "They thought we had PTSD," Bernisa says. Gloria remembers being called another word: "crazy."

But Mortenson believed them. So when police called her in early 1993 to tell her that Nuñez would soon be released, she knew she had to do something. "By this time, I knew about him killing their mother," she says. "They just told me: 'We couldn't prove anything.'

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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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