"There weren't many schools down [in Tavernier]," she says. "All he had to do was sit outside of the school and follow them home. Then I wouldn't be here anymore. He is evil."

So Mortenson let each girl choose a new surname and moved the family to Hollywood. "That's what saved their lives," she says.

The two girls were safe now, but slipping apart. Already so different, they became polar opposites as teenagers. While Bernisa became more religious, attending church with Mortenson twice a week, Gloria rebelled.

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.

Once, when Gloria was in Jacksonville getting surgery on her mangled left hand, she sneaked out and ran away. She was missing for two days. When she ran away again at age 15, it would take two months to find her.

She ended up on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, surrounded by bums, addicts, and drug dealers. "I would sleep in the motels with them," she says. She began to drink too. "I wasn't afraid," Gloria says. "I was free."

So was Nuñez. Court records show he was living in Miami at the time, sleeping on the beach and stealing beer from supermarkets. He was also moving north. "I think he was looking for them," Sergeant McCully says.

He might have found Gloria if cops hadn't gotten to her first. They spotted her on the beach. She ran. They caught her, pepper-sprayed her, and then took her to juvenile detention. She was there for 13 days before being returned to Mortenson's home. Gloria and Bernisa hardly spoke.

"I caused problems for her," Gloria says of her sister. "She went through a lot with Gerry. But I'd had enough of those people. We were treated like maids in Gerry's house." Gloria was happy to move into an apartment for troubled teenage girls in Miami. Like her mother, she began dating a much older man. She too became pregnant very young, at 16.

"I guess I felt like I was lacking something," she says. "With the absence of my mother, the lack of love from your own parent, I needed my own little being to love me."

Bernisa had her own problems. Ever since the abuse, she hadn't let a man touch her. When she married a kind, clean-cut man named David, she had trouble being intimate. He wanted children. She didn't.

Nuñez, meanwhile, had made it all the way up to North Miami Beach by 1998. He was arrested every couple of months for trespassing or being drunk and disorderly. By March 2002, Nuñez was living under a bridge on the Palmetto Expressway. That's where cops arrested him one night after he lit a fire to cook food.

Gloria was hitting her own rock bottom. She had a son to take care of and no skills, so she began stripping at a South Miami go-go club in 2002. "Dancing without clothes in front of scavengers was like swallowing a gun," she says. She took long pulls from the club's liquor bottles before climbing onstage. "It made the men easier to deal with."

Without realizing it, she was slipping beneath the same waters as her mother, pulled down by alcohol and men.


A strip club is a strange place to find salvation. But it was there, amid the black lights and booming music, that Gloria began to put her life back together. She also began to piece together the story of her mother's murder. It was a story that would put police back on Nuñez's trail, but perhaps too late.

Gloria's escape from her downward spiral hinged on a man she met at the go-go bar. Milton Solis was an unlikely customer: a strong but sweet-mannered mechanic who swept the dancer off her feet.

Solis helped persuade Gloria to quit the club and get a job at Target. They had a son together in 2007. But even as she was trying to live a normal life, Gloria never gave up on investigating her mother's death. While working at the retail giant, Gloria befriended a cop who worked part-time as the store's security guard. When she told him about her mother's death, he urged her to talk to homicide investigators.

At first, Gloria got nowhere. She says a female detective blew her off, listening to her but not even pulling Nilsa Padilla's file. "She said, 'Look, we're really busy right now. We can't help you,'" Gloria remembers.

In the end, Gloria wouldn't need the help of police. She had been trying to reach her mother's family in Connecticut for months. She found the prison visitation records for Bernisa's biological father, Miguel Cruz, and dialed every number possible.

A neighbor picked up. Moments later, Cruz himself was on the phone. He had been looking for Padilla for 25 years, he said. Soon, Gloria was on the phone with her aunt, Maggie Soto. "I thought you were all dead," Soto said between sobs. "And your sister, Alicia, how is she?"

Speaking to Soto spurred memories of Alicia's murder. Gloria decided to try Miami-Dade homicide detectives once more. This time, Sergeant McCully sat down with her. Gloria told him about her younger sister. Sure enough, when McCully subpoenaed state records, he found an Alicia Padilla-Guzman born in 1982. But the girl's name never appeared afterward.

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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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