Dumb and Dumber Luck
After squandering much of his lottery jackpot, Bernardo Paz is acquitted of raping his pregnant teenage sister-in-law
By Robert Andrew Powell
As a daytime television talk show squawks in the background, Emma Castro plops down on an outdoor couch, her bare feet tickling the stone patio bordering her trailer home. Three tiny, dirty dogs nip at her knees. When asked about Bernardo Paz, she can only shake her head. Paz was acquitted recently of raping a woman Castro calls her daughter-in-law.
He is also the grand-prize winner the Florida Lottery doesn't want you to know about.
"He is a bad man," she says finally, in words that slip between Spanish and English. "Muy mal. A very nasty, very bad man."
He's certainly a lucky man. Muy dichoso. In 1992 Paz purchased a Quick Pick lottery ticket and won seven million dollars. After taxes the Marielito stood to collect $252,000 a year for twenty years. As New Times documented in a cover story ("Dumb Luck," October 16, 1997), Paz, now age 42, so thoroughly squandered his first installments of that money that by 1997 several of his cars had to be repossessed and his house was in foreclosure. Half of each annual lottery check now goes to the second of Paz's teenage brides, who divorced him in 1995. Other winnings have been attached to pay debts, including overdue child support to his first wife.
Until just a few months ago, money seemed the least of Paz's troubles. As improbable as his Lotto victory had been, Paz faced seemingly longer odds of winning a case then winding its way through the criminal justice system. Paz was arrested in April 1997 on charges that he raped, at knife-point, the then-pregnant teenage sister of his teenage wife.
The evidence looked grim. A firefighter told prosecutors he had come across Paz's car just after 8:00 a.m. on April 9, 1997. It was parked at the edge of the woods on Krome Avenue near the Miccosukee bingo hall. When the firefighter pulled up, he startled a shirtless Paz, who leapt up and began wiping his groin and legs with a T-shirt. Paz's sister-in-law Evelyn Carbajal pulled down her denim dress and tried to cover herself, the witness stated.
Crying and speaking in Spanish, the girl relayed through a translator that Paz had raped her for two hours. The lottery winner had a knife and tried to kill her, she said. She was six weeks pregnant at the time.
Metro-Dade Police found Paz's T-shirt and an eight-inch butcher knife hidden in the grass near the car. Detectives charged him with two counts of battery and one count each of armed sexual battery, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and lewd and lascivious behavior. Paz pleaded not guilty.
"It certainly appeared to be a case of merit," says Michael Seth Cohen, Carbajal's attorney. "I've viewed the investigative file, and the police had done a good job documenting the evidence. In fact it looked to me like there was enough evidence available to procure a guilty verdict in the absence of the witness."
Nope. In yet another great stroke of luck for Paz, the alleged victim apparently changed her mind and failed to show up in court. During her absence the defense convinced a jury, in November 1998, to acquit Paz. "He's free and clear on all charges," prosecutor Jonathan David admits. "Double jeopardy prevents us from ever trying this case again."
The State Attorney's Office ran into trouble early on. After his arrest in 1997, a judge denied bail and Paz sat in the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center for more than a year. On several occasions before the trial, Paz's lawyer Percy Martinez argued for his client's release. At a July 1998 bail hearing, a critical piece of evidence was submitted: a notarized letter from Carbajal insisting the rape and assault charges were a misunderstanding. The judge released Paz on $25,000 bail later that month.
Then Carbajal disappeared. State investigators could not locate her, despite several visits to her known addresses. They even subpoenaed her cell-phone records. In her absence the judge issued a warrant for her arrest.
Prosecutors proceeded to try Paz without the alleged victim's cooperation. At the trial, which lasted four days, Paz's attorney Martinez claimed the rape allegations were concocted in an attempt to win some of Paz's money, David relates. Part of Martinez's evidence: Carbajal had filed a civil suit for emotional distress, battery, assault, and false imprisonment seeking damages in excess of $15,000. The civil charges were brought only one month after the alleged assault.
Attempts by New Times to locate Paz have been fruitless. The bank has foreclosed on his former townhouse near Florida International University. Two neighbors, smoking cigarettes in their driveway one night in early January, did not know where the family had relocated. New Times thrice visited Paz's known address, a nondescript townhouse in Kendale Lakes. No one was home. A neighbor was unsure whether she had ever seen Paz there. Paz does not have a listed phone number.
Paz's lawyer did not return a dozen phone messages.
Carbajal is still missing. Over a two-week period in January, New Times knocked on several doors throughout Miami-Dade County in an attempt to locate her, also without success. Her current lawyer, Cohen, claims not to know her address. Nor does he know the address of the girl's mother, her coplaintiff in the civil suit filed against Paz. When told that a number listed for Carbajal's mother is disconnected, Cohen shakes his head knowingly. He can't reach his own clients, he says.
"I don't know where it is, this case," Cohen admits, referring to the prospects of a settlement in the civil dispute. "This is a family. There are issues concerning the impact on the family to be litigating essentially amongst family members."
Yet for a while at least, it seemed Carbajal might make Paz pay. Paz claims his first civil attorney, Charles Salom, failed to meet a March 1998 deadline to respond to a motion. That prompted the judge to declare Paz liable for damages. In retaliation for the alleged mistake, Paz fired the attorney. "He fired me because he assumed I was trying to seduce his wife," Salom says. "He's wacko."
For the appeal Paz hired two lawyers, George Garcia and former Miami City Commissioner Humberto Hernandez. In January 1996, Garcia waved a loaded Glock 9-mm semiautomatic pistol at an irate client. (He later pleaded guilty to assault charges and was sentenced to seven years of probation.) Hernandez, as most of Miami knows, faced his own problems. "Both [lawyers] ... were soon indicted on criminal charges not related to this action and neither ... could pursue his defense," wrote Percy Martinez in a brief filed in support of Paz's appeal.
Eventually the appeal was successful and the default judgment against Paz was overturned. Yet Paz agreed to pay, Cohen reports. "An on-the-record settlement had been reached ... [The sister-in-law] would have gotten a substantial amount of money each year." Then, inexplicably, things changed. "The mom didn't want to pursue it further," Cohen adds.
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Carbajal's last known address is Emma Castro's white aluminum trailer, located in the University Lakes trailer park in Southwest Dade. Castro says her son has lived with Carbajal for three years. She refers to the young woman as her daughter-in-law even though the couple is unmarried. Castro says the two teenagers live in Little Havana at an address she does not know.
Several of the lawyers Paz has been associated with assert that he is a good man. "He's not a bad person," says Salom, the lawyer Paz fired. "I know that sounds ridiculous considering his actions, but it's true."
Staff writer Ted B. Kissell assisted in the reporting of this story.
Published:Owing to an editing error in "Dumb and Dumber Luck" (February 4), about lottery winner Bernardo Paz, attorney George Garcia's plea to charges of aggravated assault and witness tampering was stated incorrectly. Garcia pleaded no contest. New Times regrest the error.