In 1992 Bernardo Paz hit the Lotto, bought himself a brand-new BMW, and headed down the road to ruin. This year he finally got there.
By Robert Andrew Powell
If Bernardo Paz felt lucky on April 24, 1992, it didn't show. In fact, the 36-year-old Cuban immigrant didn't even remember the Lotto ticket that was tucked away in his wallet when he strode into the Publix at Douglas Road and Flagler Street to buy chicken, rice, soda, and beer for a family picnic. It was only after a friend reminded him to check his numbers that he retrieved the Quick Pick slip, which he'd purchased at this same store the day before with a dollar skimmed from his unemployment check. "Oh, you've got one number," the friend said as they compared the ticket to the display of winning digits. "Oh, you've got two numbers. You've got three numbers!"
"We were out in the car waiting," recalls Teresa Paz, the younger of Paz's two daughters from his first marriage. "When he ran back to the car, he told us he won the lottery. We refused to believe him, but he kept saying that it was true. He was all hyper."
It was true. Paz was the lone winner of a seven-million-dollar jackpot: Every year for the next twenty years he'd receive a check, after taxes, for $252,000. He canceled the picnic.
"I give thanks to God for this prize, and I'm grateful to be here in the United States where this is possible," he beamed after claiming his money at Florida Lottery headquarters in Tallahassee. "Bernardo plans to use his winnings to provide for his children's futures, buy a house, and perhaps travel," read a Lottery news release issued at the time.
On the long list of Good Things That Can Happen, Paz had scored near the top. Large sums of free money have a nice way of padding a person's lifestyle: Time clocks and debts vanish into the ether. Worries about food and shelter are forgotten. Driving a rickety old compact car? Trade it in for a sleek new BMW. Renting a cramped one-bedroom apartment? Buy your own pristine home complete with a pool in which to float away the hot Florida afternoons. Lest there be any doubt, state lottery officials have produced a new series of "winner awareness" commercials, TV and radio spots featuring members of the Lotto nouveau riche, all of whom are brightly dressed and exceptionally happy.
The Florida Lottery, however, isn't likely to film a winner awareness commercial featuring Bernardo Paz.
True, Paz did cash in that first check on a house and a pool to go with it, not to mention cars, toys for the kids, trips, and gifts for friends. But so enthusiastic were his spending habits that a mere five years after he hit the jackpot, the thrice-married millionaire is so broke that he claims to be living on food stamps. He lost half his money when his second wife divorced him. Many more thousands went to cover overdue child support from his first marriage. All but a fraction of his next check, due in May, has been spoken for by attorneys, to pay off past debts.
And yet money is among the least of Paz's concerns. Since April he has been incarcerated in the Turner Guilford Knight Correctional Center, awaiting trial on felony charges stemming from the alleged rape of his then-sixteen-year-old former sister-in-law. If convicted, Paz, who is now 41, could spend the rest of his life in prison. Compounding his problems, the alleged victim has filed a civil suit for damages, a move that might prevent Paz's current wife, who has borne one of his children, is raising another, and is pregnant with a third, from keeping any of the remaining Lotto money for herself.
"None of this would have happened to him if he hadn't won the lottery," argues Barbara Munoz, one of the attorneys representing Paz in his criminal trial. "I wasn't there, but it really does look like a setup," she says of his legal predicament. "People will make allegations in order to get money in return." Munoz, who has known Paz for years, describes her client as one of the unluckiest men on the planet, despite his apparent good fortune.
Counters Norman Segall, an attorney for both of Paz's ex-wives: "He had the opportunity to be the luckiest man alive and he's turned that stroke of luck into dirt. I'd venture to say there are millions of people who wish they were as unlucky as he was."
Bernardo de la Caridad Paz is a small man, just a notch over five feet tall. Rail thin, he tips the scales at about 100 pounds. His arms lack muscle, his light skin sinks at his cheeks. Women who've seen him swear he is in no way attractive. The ones who married him, though, do have one striking common characteristic. Each moved in with him at the same age: fourteen.
Wife number one, Regla Fleites, wed Paz in Havana in 1978. Today she says she doesn't remember exactly why she married the 22-year-old sixth-grade dropout, aside from the fact that she was his girlfriend and it seemed like the thing to do.
Within a year Fleites was pregnant and the couple was floating to Miami with the Mariel boatlift. By 1983 she had two daughters, Laura and Teresa, a son, Eddie, and a seventeen-hour-a-day job packing boxes at a Hialeah factory. "For eight years I'd work from 7:00 a.m. to midnight," Fleites recalls. "After long hours I'd come home to find that he hadn't fixed the kids anything to eat or even watched them. I guess he felt that was my job."
As for Paz, Fleites says he seemed to be out of work more often than at it. He sold flowers by the side of the road for a time and helped manage an apartment building in exchange for a cut in rent. He landed a steady job at an outfit called Caribbean Security, but that came to a bad end.
According to court records, on the morning of December 9, 1985, Paz was about to finish his shift at the wholesale produce mart near Jackson Memorial Hospital when he spotted an illegally parked truck. Several witnesses testified that after Paz rapped on it with his nightstick, the driver got out, picked up the diminutive sentry by his collar, and threw him onto the truck's hood. As the driver turned to leave, Paz pulled out a revolver and shot him in the back of the leg.
Paz, who pleaded guilty to aggravated battery and to using a firearm to commit a felony, was sentenced to a community-control program for two years, followed by three years' probation.
"It was a plea of convenience," asserts Barbara Munoz, who represented Paz in that case. "He was acting out of self-defense."
In any event, Paz violated his probation in 1989 by setting out for Key West without calling his probation officer. His explanation, found in the court records: He didn't have change for the phone. Soon after, he embarked on a longer journey -- a two-month vacation to San Francisco, also unauthorized -- and failed to submit the standard probation report for the month of March 1989. When his probation officer tried to check up on him by visiting his listed address, he couldn't find him. Paz's aunt, who owned the house, reported that her nephew no longer lived there, and that in fact he'd only lived there for a few weeks while recovering from ulcer surgery.
"Please note," the probation officer stated in his report, apparently written after a post-California conversation with Paz, "that the person that the subject is referring to as his wife is actually ... a fourteen-year-old girl."
By that time Paz was 33. He had divorced Regla Fleites earlier that year, leaving her with the three children and $80 a week in child support that, according to current court records, he never paid. His new girlfriend Alicia, an immigrant who arrived from Havana with her parents in 1988, had dropped out of junior high to move in with him. In 1991, two days after her sixteenth birthday, they were married.
Fleites, meanwhile, began seeing one of Paz's cousins, Antonio Santana. That year both daughters accused Santana and his brother Freddy of sexually molesting them. A juvenile court judge issued a restraining order against both men and awarded temporary custody of all three children to Paz and his new young bride.
Alicia suddenly found herself the stepmother of three children not much younger than herself. She shuttled them to school and back, cooked their meals, washed their clothes, and bathed them. At night she did her best to help with their homework. Her husband, meanwhile, continued to scout for employment, without much success.
"We were so poor," recalls Teresa, who's now fifteen. "All five of us slept on the same bed in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. On my father's birthday, we wanted to make him a cake, but we couldn't afford a cake. So we made him a cake out of Jell-O!"
Into this life fell seven million dollars.
The odds are astounding -- nearly fourteen million to one. To win the lottery, Bernardo Paz's six computer-generated numbers had to match the six numbered Ping-Pong balls that rolled out of the 49-ball Lotto hopper in Tallahassee. Statistically, he was more likely to be zapped by lightning or perish in a plane crash than to become a millionaire.
Soon after receiving his first $252,000 check, Paz replaced his one-bedroom apartment with a $148,000 house west of Sweetwater, complete with swimming pool. He bought a car for himself and one for Alicia. He gave each of his daughters her own horse, which they boarded at a friend's stable. Trips were taken to Disney World and to the Keys.
"It was pretty cool at the beginning," Teresa remembers. "I basically could have gotten anything I wanted: bicycles, skates, necklaces, bracelets. We even went to Cuba -- the whole family. My father, if you wanted it, even if he didn't have the money, he'd try to get it for you."
And now he did have the money. When the second payment arrived the following May, Paz spent even more lavishly. He bought a $64,000 BMW 740iL, followed by a Mazda truck, an RV, and a 23-foot motorboat. He also made one investment, sinking more than $60,000 into a Little Havana restaurant.
At the same time he was spending money with abandon, Paz was spending less and less time at home, leaving Alicia to take care of his kids. "My father was always in the restaurant, so we used to go to the movies together," Teresa says of her stepmother. "She was the one telling us to 'Do your homework, do your homework,' like she was our real mom. She used to take us to school and pick us up. She'd have to go to school two or three times because we were into sports. My father, he was never there."
A troubling economic cycle developed. The money that May brought never lasted more than a few months. And when it disappeared, so did the things -- the trips, the cars, even the food -- it had bought. The horses were already long gone by October 1993, when Paz lost the Mazda truck. The restaurant was a bust. Soon he'd sold the house, too.
By the following March, Paz had spent $500,000 in less than two years. With nothing left to tide the family over till May and the next check from the lottery, Alicia took a job at a fast-food restaurant to make ends meet. "She worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken," Teresa reports. "She'd give us free chicken sometimes. My father, I don't remember what he was doing. I don't think he was doing anything. He'd disappear for weeks at a time. He wouldn't tell us where he was going, he'd just go for a couple of weeks."
Alicia stayed on at KFC until May, and the money, rolled around again. With it Paz returned, along with his spending habits. The repossessed cars were replaced by a new Cadillac DeVille. He and Alicia purchased another, more modest townhouse in West Dade, overlooking the Florida Turnpike. Still, a Nissan Stanza bought in October was gone by December, and in March 1995 Paz lost the Cadillac. He was also evicted from an apartment he'd acquired and failed to pay rent on. To make ends meet, Alicia's father loaned the family $9000.
Two weeks into April, as Paz stood outside a Shell station, Alicia served him with divorce papers. A judge froze most of the 1995 lottery winnings, allowing the estranged couple $50,000 apiece. According to Teresa, Alicia quietly used some of her money to pay the private school tuition for her and her siblings. Paz chose to spend a fair chunk of his share on a $21,000 Ford Aerostar. His allowance depleted by August, he petitioned the court to release $30,000 more. The request was denied.
When the divorce became final in January of last year, Alicia was awarded 46 percent of the lottery money every year for the remaining sixteen years. A month later Paz lost the Aerostar.
Despite the money crunch, Paz had no trouble replacing Alicia with a new paramour. Even before the divorce had worked its way through the courts, he'd taken up with a fourteen-year-old named Claudia. His daughters coldly greeted the girl who would soon be their new stepmother. "My sister and I gave her a black eye in a fistfight," boasts Teresa. "I never liked her. I'd listen to Alicia when she told us what to do, I guess because she was seriously trying to help us. This lady, all she's there for is my father."
With the stabilizing influence of Alicia out of the way, Teresa recalls, Paz returned to drinking and smoking, vices she'd persuaded him to quit. Drugs even found their way into Teresa's bloodstream, according to lab tests performed when she visited the emergency room at Kendall Regional Medical Center claiming that a clock had fallen on her head. According to attorney Norman Segall, investigators from the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (now the Department of Children and Families) failed to determine exactly why Teresa tested positive for cocaine, barbiturates, opiates, and other drugs, and the girl was allowed to stay with her father.
Teresa says a rotating cast of characters -- Freddy Santana among them -- came to party at the townhouse, staying up late and often spending the night. Fearing that Santana might make sexual advances, Teresa's older sister Laura moved back in with her natural mother, and Teresa soon followed. (When Santana's name came up during court filings related to the Paz-Fleites divorce, Paz's attorney Barbara Munoz argued that Santana had not been visiting the townhouse.)
Paz, who retained custody of his son Eddie, desperately commanded his daughters to move back in with him. "He calls me up and says, 'You've got to come home and take care of Claudia. She's pregnant. You're obligated,'" Teresa remembers. "I told him I wasn't obligated to do anything.
"Sometimes I used to wish we didn't win the lottery," she goes on. "It got us together, but at the same time it got us separated. He never gave us a hug or a kiss again, or said 'I love you.' He used to say it was okay if you didn't have money, but then he changed and said that if we didn't have money, then we couldn't have this big house or these things. The lottery was good at first, I guess. But it changed to be a nightmare."
Though she was no longer responsible for the care of Paz's' children, Alicia continued to stop by Regla Fleites's house to visit her former stepdaughters. On one visit, she gave Fleites her attorney's business card.
Fleites promptly sued Paz for back child support.
Just after 8:00 a.m. on Wednesday, April 9 of this year, Daniel Ogden, a supervisor for the Florida Division of Forestry's fire department, was driving north along Krome Avenue near the Miccosukee bingo hall when he spotted a silver car backed into some woods on the east side of the road, just north of a makeshift boat ramp. Aware that one or two stolen cars are dumped in these woods every month, and that one had recently been involved in a fire, Ogden rolled his truck to a stop about 25 feet away and radioed the Florida Highway Patrol.
From the cab of his truck, Ogden could see a shirtless man sitting in the passenger's seat of the silver car. A bottle of Budweiser rested on the roof above his head. The bare foot of a second person could be seen hanging down behind the open passenger's door.
"He looked startled," Ogden would later state in a sworn deposition, describing the moment when Bernardo Paz first noticed him. "He jumped out of the car and he was nude and he had something white in his hand, looked like a T-shirt or something. And then he started wiping himself [in the groin and on his legs]."
Paz, Ogden later testified, got back into his car and started to drive off, but then seemed to think better of it and pulled up alongside the forestry truck. The second person in the car, Ogden now saw, was a young girl, who was pulling down a denim dress as if to cover herself. When it became clear that Paz spoke little English, Ogden radioed a colleague to come translate. The girl, the firefighters learned, was Erica, the sixteen-year-old sister of Paz's new wife Claudia. In Spanish, she tearfully told Ogden's colleague that she had been raped for two hours, that Paz had a knife, and that he had tried to kill her. She was six weeks pregnant at the time.
Metro-Dade police detectives who were summoned to the scene by the highway patrol found Paz's T-shirt and an eight-inch butcher knife hidden in the grass near where Ogden had first spied the car. According to Det. Ralph Hernandez, when questioned at Metro's Sexual Crimes Bureau, Paz denied assaulting Erica. Initially, he also denied having been naked at the boat ramp; he subsequently changed his story to say that he'd stripped down in order to go to the bathroom. The knife, he asserted, was for protection against animals and snakes.
Hernandez nonetheless charged Paz with two counts of battery and one count each of armed sexual battery, kidnapping, aggravated assault, and lewd and lascivious behavior. If convicted, he could be sentenced to life in prison. He has pleaded not guilty.
Paz initially applied for a public defender, stating that he had no assets and no income aside from $170 per week in food stamps. He made no mention of his lottery winnings.
At a pretrial bond hearing in May, Detective Hernandez reported Erica's version of events: She had planned to sleep over at her sister's house, as she'd done in the past. At 3:00 a.m. they had retired for the night, Erica to a guest room, Claudia and Paz to their own room.
"The defendant came into [Erica's] bedroom with some sort of string on -- she couldn't describe it," Hernandez testified, reconstructing for the court what the girl had told him. "It was some sort of ribbon. And [she said] that he wanted to wrap it around her stomach, which was to keep away evil spirits, to protect the fetus from having any problems. And as he was trying to do this to her, he also was trying to fondle her body. And [she said] that he would tell her things like, 'Your skin is very soft,' or whatever."
Frightened, Erica jumped out of bed and ran off to find Claudia, but when the two girls went to confront Paz, he had sped away in his car. He soon returned with a carton of cigarettes, however, and angrily denied having assaulted Erica, at which point she asked to call her mother to come pick her up. "I'll take you home," Paz ordered, according to Hernandez's retelling. Claudia demanded to go along, but Paz allegedly rebuffed her, saying, "Stay home. Don't you trust me? I'll be right back."
Instead of taking her home, Erica told Hernandez, Paz drove toward the Everglades. He wanted to have sex, she said, but she refused. It was then that he allegedly pulled the butcher knife from between the seats, held it to Erica's neck, and said he would "feed her to the alligators" if she didn't cooperate. She said he hiked up her dress, removed her underwear, stripped off his own clothes, and raped her.
Detective Hernandez testified that Claudia had corroborated her sister's story up to the point at which Paz drove off with Erica. But when Claudia took the stand at the bond hearing, she completely refuted Erica's allegations about what had happened at the house. She had heard her husband and her sister having sex in the guest bedroom, Claudia testified, and it seemed to her at the time that it was consensual. "What I heard was like when a couple is enjoying themselves," she stated. When Erica told her Paz had attempted to rape her in bed, she said, she ordered her sister out of the house. Asked why she had failed to confront Paz about sleeping with her sister, she replied that "he's taught me that a couple, regardless of how serious anything is, they discuss it once they are alone in the matrimony room."
Assistant State Attorney Larry McMillan protested to County Court Judge Jose M. Rodriguez that Claudia's testimony was "almost completely inconsistent to what she told the detective on the day of the incident."
Confronted with the discrepancy, Claudia stated that Hernandez must be lying.
The judge denied bond for Paz, who will remain incarcerated until his trial, tentatively scheduled for November 3.
Two weeks after the bond hearing, and just over a month after the incident, Erica, through her mother, sued Paz for emotional distress, battery, assault, and false imprisonment, seeking damages in excess of $15,000.
"They are after his money," argues Fred Robbins, Paz's lead defense attorney in the criminal case. "They jumped on filing a lawsuit -- they couldn't do it fast enough. These people have nothing, and they are extremely jealous of Bernardo's wife, who lived in a nice house."
At the bond hearing, Claudia also testified that her sister had come to her previously accusing Paz of rape, only to admit the charge wasn't true. "She said she couldn't stand to see me happy with my husband," Claudia declared. "And what she wanted was to separate me from him and see if I could help ... to see if I could give money to her.... According to her, she wanted me to help her buy clothes, to buy shoes."
Only one week before her husband's arrest, Claudia added, she and Paz had confronted her father about an ugly incident from her past. When she was twelve years old, she told the court, her father had "violated" her against her will. The pregnancy and the child that resulted had long been blamed on a fictitious boyfriend, but now Claudia and Paz had announced their intention to file criminal charges.
This threat, Robbins posits, may have inspired Erica and her mother to set a trap. "Just think: They get rid of Bernardo so his father-in-law is not in trouble any more, and they get a shot at the money," the attorney speculates.
Robbins declined to let his client speak to New Times. "If we lose this case," he notes, "he can go to prison for a long, long time."
At 30 seconds apiece, the Florida Lottery's winner awareness commercials are just long enough to achieve a happy ending. Families recall how in the old days they pinched pennies and bought everything on sale. No longer preoccupied with bargain-hunting, they dance and they smile. While it's difficult to tack a stereotypically happy ending to the saga of Bernardo Paz's family, the Lotto's promise of a better life actually did come true for some family members.
Regla Fleites settled her lawsuit against Paz on April 23. Noting that Paz "never paid a single dollar in child support, either before or after winning the lottery," attorney Norman Segall won a modification of the couple's 1989 divorce, compelling Paz to pay his client $99,000 in past-due child support and legal fees. Additionally, Paz must pay for health insurance for Laura and Teresa and provide $2000 in child support every month until both daughters turn nineteen.
While Fleites retains custody of her daughters, fourteen-year-old Eddie still lives with Claudia in the house near the turnpike. His custody could revert back to Fleites, pending the result of a "home study" to be undertaken by state officials. "Agents of the court inspect each house to see which one is better for the child," explains Segall. "We fully expect that they'll decide in favor of Regla's house over a house where he's being raised by an unemployed pregnant teenager whose unemployed husband is in jail."
With the money from the settlement, Fleites moved out of the Hialeah trailer park where she'd been living and into a new house in southwest Dade. Framed pictures of her daughters hang on a white wall in the living room. There's a third daughter now, fathered by the man she's living with, a tile worker whom Teresa describes as "pretty cool."
After leaving Paz, Alicia moved back in with her parents and now lives the life of a normal 22-year-old. While she has been conservative with her first two lottery checks, she did spend a little money on braces to straighten out her teeth. Having earned her GED, she enrolled at Miami-Dade Community College, where she's studying to become a midwife. She declined to be interviewed for this story, saying that many of her classmates don't know about her history with Paz, or about the lottery money. Over the next fifteen years, she stands to collect $2.4 million.
"Now she has friends," boasts Teresa, who remains in close contact with her former stepmother. "That's something that when she was with us she wasn't able to have, because she had to raise us. Now she has lots of friends, and she's finally able to do what she wants to do."
The future of Paz's current wife doesn't seem nearly as bright. A recent dinnertime visit to Claudia Paz's townhouse found it empty. A lamp near the front door was shattered. Dogs thrashed around in the chest-high grass in the back yard, contained by a weathered wooden fence. "They go away for three weeks at a time, just leaving the dogs alone there," said a neighbor who asked not to be identified. "Sometimes I toss meat at them because I feel so bad." The neighbor advised a nighttime return, saying that Eddie Paz could often be seen after midnight, riding his go-cart around the subdivision's streets.
Indeed, at eleven o'clock on a recent weeknight, both Eddie and Claudia are home. As the dogs bark, Bernardo Paz's wife stands behind the security bars that protect her front door, clutching the toddler Paz fathered against her pregnant belly. She isn't supposed to speak to strangers without her husband's permission, the seventeen-year-old bride explains. The court cases are a family matter, she adds: "It's my sister against my husband."
In August a process server handed Claudia a complaint for mortgage foreclosure.
All minors mentioned in this story have been given pseudonyms, as has Bernardo Paz's second wife "Alicia." No other names were changed.
Owing to a copy-editing error, early on in last week's cover story "Dumb Luck" the alleged victim "Erica" was misidentified as the former sister-in-law of accused rapist Bernardo Paz. As became clear later in the article, the girl was -- and still is -- Paz's sister-in-law.Info:Published:
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