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Like Cleveland Kidnapping Victims, Miami Sisters Were Nearly Saved Only To Continue Suffering

Like Cleveland Kidnapping Victims, Miami Sisters Were Nearly Saved Only To Continue Suffering
Courtesy of Miami-Dade Police Dept.

Across the nation, Americans have been gripped by the amazing escape of three young women kidnapped and imprisoned inside a house in Cleveland for a decade.

Here in Miami, the horrific tale happens to bear an eery resemblance to this week's cover story, in which two sisters suffer unspeakable horrors at the hands of their own father, only to survive and seek vengeance.

And as with the Cleveland kidnappings, Miami's 28-year-old murder mystery could have been avoided had luck gone the sisters' way.

See also:

- Miami Cold Case Murder Solved With Recovered Memories

According to news reports, Cleveland Police responded to captor Ariel Castro's house on several occasions -- including after a neighbor reported seeing a naked woman crawling around the yard on a leash -- but did not enter.

Similarly, cops had several chances to catch suspected Miami murderer Jorge Walter Nuñez (aka Rafael Guzman) long before he allegedly killed his partner and her infant daughter.

Nuñez, who already had a criminal record in New York, was arrested shortly after moving to Miami in 1983. But the disorderly intoxication and resisting officer charges went nowhere.

Then, just a few months before he allegedly killed partner Nilsa Padilla and her infant daughter Alicia Guzman-Padilla, Nuñez was pulled over when his converted U-Haul struck an overpass. Again, however, cops had no idea that the man was already sexually abusing his own step-daughter, Bernisa, and would soon go on a murderous rampage.

Because Padilla's dismembered body was never identified, and Alicia's was never found, police had little reason to suspect Nuñez when they arrested him again in 1988 for disorderly intoxication and resisting officer.

Parts of Nilsa Padilla's body washed ashore on Virginia Key
Parts of Nilsa Padilla's body washed ashore on Virginia Key
Courtesy of Miami-Dade Police Dept.

And so it was that when Nuñez was finally caught molesting his own children in March of 1989, his daughters were too terrified that he would be released to tell the truth about the abuse. "If I tell you, will you let my daddy go?" younger child Gloria asked.

Nuñez served just four years in prison. Despite being arrested roughly 50 times in Florida before and after the 1989 arrest, cops never connected him to the two murders until after his 2004 deportation.

 

Nilsa Padilla holds Bernisa, 1978
Nilsa Padilla holds Bernisa, 1978
Courtesy of Miami-Dade Police Dept.

The saddest twist of bad luck happened before Nuñez had even met Padilla, however. She was living in Connecticut at the time with her then boyfriend, an older Puerto Rican mechanic named Miguel Cruz. The two had a daughter, Bernisa.

But one night in 1979, an in-law shook Cruz out of bed. The man demanded that the mechanic use his car to drive him and several others around town.

"He saw two women outside and said, 'I know those two girls,'" says Cruz, who New Times reached by phone in Connecticut. Cruz pulled over. "He and another guy took them out back and raped both of them."

"It was stupid," Cruz says. "I thought he was my friend." Instead, the man warned Cruz: "I'm gonna kill you if you open your mouth."

Unlike Nilsa's murder years later, cops quickly put together the crime. They arrested the men and Cruz served two years in prison for his role in the double rape.

While Cruz was in jail, Nilsa and baby Bernisa moved on. She eventually met Jorge Walter Nuñez, the man who would murder her.

Cruz served his time and then rebuilt his life like the cars he fixed up in the Connecticut cold. But he always wondered what had happened to Nilsa. And when he heard about her murder in 2010, he began to think of what could have been if he hadn't gotten out of bed that night in 1979.

"If she waited for me, it would have been ok," he says. "But I got out of jail and nobody knew about her. Just that she moved to Florida. So I found another girl, had two kids, and made a life."

Cruz knows that had he never been arrested, his daughter, Bernisa, would have been spared a horrible childhood.

"This guy is a fucking animal who raped her," he says of Nuñez. "I saw that guy do horrible shit to those women, and they were adults. Bernisa was just a child."

"People like that you need to fucking kill them for good, make them suffer," he says. "I know that Jesus Christ would not take anybody's life, but I say bring him to the electric table, put him in the gas, and fucking die."

Like the kidnappings in Cleveland, one of Miami's most horrific murders is a story of 'what ifs.'

"If I hadn't had that problem maybe she'd still be with me," Cruz says. "But that's life."

Follow Miami New Times on Facebook and Twitter @MiamiNewTimes. Follow this journalist on Twitter @MikeMillerMiami.


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