By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
So it was no surprise when Padilla suddenly vanished in the summer of 1976. She had saved enough money from housekeeping jobs to buy a plane ticket to New York City. "Overnight she was gone," says her older brother, Radames Mercado. "She didn't even leave a note."
Mercado heard from his sister only once more. Two years after she left, an envelope arrived. Inside was a photo of Padilla holding a baby girl. There was no letter, just an image of Padilla, dressed in a scarlet blouse, holding her daughter Bernisa against a blood-red background.
The peaceful photo belied the chaos of Padilla's new life in the United States. Upon arriving in New York, she'd begun dating a much older Puerto Rican mechanic named Miguel Cruz. Within months, Padilla was pregnant. But before she could even give birth to Bernisa, Cruz was arrested for his role in the rape of two women. He wasn't in the family photo because he was serving two years in prison. Padilla left Cruz, but any plans for a better life ended at the hands of the next man she met.
He called himself Rafael Guzman, but his real name was Jorge Walter Nuñez. Like Cruz, he was nearly ten years older than Padilla and had a penchant for trouble. Nuñez's father had left Peru to become a successful tailor in New York City. When his son turned 18, he sent for him. Nuñez arrived in the States July 1, 1967. His passport photo shows a handsome, clean-shaven kid wearing a suit and tie like a gentleman.
Nuñez was anything but. He immediately overstayed his three-month tourist visa. By the time he was 23, he had established a pattern of lying and stealing. On Christmas Eve 1972, he was arrested in Jamaica, Queens, for grand larceny. He gave his name as Jorge Nunz, the first of a dozen pseudonyms.
How he met Nilsa Padilla is unclear. But her family says it was the potbellied Peruvian with a wild beard who introduced her to a life of hard boozing. The two were already together when Nuñez was arrested in November 1979, again for grand larceny. In May 1980, he was arrested a third time for stealing.
None of the arrests stuck, however. And so it was that Nuñez and Padilla, with Bernisa and newborn Gloria in tow, showed up smelling of alcohol at her cousin Maggie Soto's front door in Hartford, Connecticut — where she'd moved with her family — during the summer of 1981.
"I didn't like him at all," Soto says of Nuñez. "He was always drunk." He also brought out the worst in Padilla. She drank heavily, slipping into dark moods. One day, Padilla drunkenly hit 4-year-old Bernisa on the head with a brush, causing a gash. Soto told her: "If you ever do that again, I'm calling the cops on you."
Nuñez and Padilla left town shortly afterward in an old U-Haul truck he'd turned into a makeshift camper by cutting a window in the rear. They drove down the coast to Florida.
When Soto next saw her cousin, it was three years later, in 1984. Padilla was in worse shape than ever. She now had three kids: Bernisa, Gloria, and a baby named Alicia. But the family was on the run from the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.
When Soto asked why, Padilla pointed to Gloria's shoddily bandaged left hand. Nuñez had dropped a heavy piece of metal on the 3-year-old — by accident, he said — mangling her thumb. The two drunks had never taken the toddler to the hospital.
There were other signs that Padilla's life was spinning out of control. Once, during a shouting match in front of Soto's house, Nuñez shoved her into the U-Haul. When Soto went inside the camper, Padilla said she was tired of Nuñez and drank to numb her depression. When Soto asked why she didn't leave, Padilla answered that she had no money.
Nuñez, meanwhile, made no effort to hide his hatred. "I'm fed up with her," he told Soto in Spanish. "One of these days, I'm going to kill her."
Memories of murder don't fade, Gloria Hampton says. They remain as sharp as the night her mother's blood covered the camper floor. But they do break like windows in an abandoned warehouse, falling out one by one, leaving black patches that can never be restored.
Without Bernisa, the blackness might have overtaken Gloria. But between the two of them, the sisters can still bring that night — and that nightmare — back to life. It is a painful séance.
Like most evenings in the camper, it began with Budweiser and a bitter argument. When the family returned to Florida in 1984, Nuñez parked the U-Haul on Virginia Key Beach. Officially, the island was closed, but that made it only more inviting to the drifters, drunks, and druggies who pitched their tents on its filthy shore.
By the spring of 1985, Nuñez and Padilla were at home among the alcoholics and addicts. But Nuñez was hiding a horrible secret from her. Whenever Padilla sent him on errands, he would take Bernisa with him in his van and molest her.