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.