By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
When the secret finally broke that night in early April, it came spurting out like blood. Nuñez had left to get booze. Padilla was drinking while getting Bernisa ready for school the next morning. The quiet child with black hair and a goofy grin normally looked forward to her classes, but tonight she wasn't smiling. She told her mom about the van. The abuse. The pain.
Instead of comforting her, Padilla drunkenly smacked her daughter. "She hit me so hard my face was bleeding," Bernisa says. "Maybe she finally realized that she was with the wrong man."
If so, it was too late. When Nuñez returned around 2 a.m., Padilla was waiting for him. From their bunk bed near the ceiling, the three children saw their father strike her with the butt of a beer bottle. He hit her again and again in the head, the glass breaking within its brown paper bag. She tried to climb out the back door. For a moment, moonlight flooded into the tiny camper.
"Then he shoved her back in with his foot," Bernisa remembers. "He closed the door, and then he finished her off."
Alicia was too young to do anything but scream. Bernisa and Gloria were in shock.
"I saw my mom beaten to death," Bernisa says. "My only protector in the world, and she couldn't protect herself." Neither sister remembers Nuñez cutting up the corpse, but Gloria distinctly recalls seeing her father stuff her mother's body into an army-green bag. "I remember helping him dispose of her," she says.
Police now believe Nuñez must have driven to the bridge and thrown the body parts into the ocean believing they would be swept out to sea. Instead, they circled in the current for days, washing up on beaches around Biscayne Bay. But the three girls were too afraid to say anything, so no one came looking for Padilla.
"He never mentioned her ever again," Gloria says. "Not once."
The next morning, Nuñez drove the U-Haul to a friend's house somewhere in Miami. He gave the traumatized girls mangoes to eat while he washed their mother's blood from the trailer. Then they headed south toward the Keys.
Nuñez wasn't done killing, however. A few weeks later, he turned on the girls. He drove the U-Haul to a trailer park to pick up a welfare check, Bernisa remembers. He gave the girls cereal and warned them to eat.
But Bernisa wasn't hungry. When he returned, he saw her uneaten bowl. "Who didn't finish?" he growled. Bernisa pointed at Alicia, thinking that Nuñez wouldn't hit the baby. But she was wrong.
Nuñez struck the toddler across the head. Alicia went limp. Nuñez threw the child over his shoulder. He said he was going to get help. But Bernisa and Gloria never saw their sister again. "He dumped her in the trash," Bernisa believes, "like a piece of garbage."
For the two remaining girls, the horrors were just beginning.
The girls woke to the sound of water. They had lived most of their lives next to the ocean and were used to the waves. But this sound was different. Now the ocean seemed like it was all around them. They peered over the edge of their bunk bed. Black water bubbled up toward them. The U-Haul was sinking into the sea.
Bernisa and Gloria jumped into the ink below. They waded toward the U-Haul's only door, outlined by a square of silver light. Then they pushed against the weight of the water on the other side.
Suddenly, they were in the open sea, dawn's light dancing off the waves around them. The camper was half-submerged. They paddled toward land, their tiny feet digging voraciously into the soft sand. And there was their father, standing on the shore. Saying nothing. Smiling.
The two sisters had already seen their father kill their mother and sister. But those sickening moments were nothing compared to the rape, violence, and neglect that would follow. Without Padilla around, Nuñez would become a monster. And Bernisa and Gloria would be forced to live like animals alongside him to survive.
After the 1985 murders, Nuñez had driven the white U-Haul full of secrets south along the Overseas Highway. He turned off near Mile Marker 73 into a tiny parking lot that stared out into the Atlantic. The narrow strip of sand was called Anne's Beach.
Nuñez never worked, likely living on Padilla's welfare checks. Whatever money he did have, he spent on Budweiser or marijuana. The campground was only a few hundred yards from Lower Matecumbe Key's strip malls, but Bernisa and Gloria lived like wolves. Their hair — Bernisa's dark, Gloria's blond — grew long and matted, and they survived on crabs or shrimp they found in shallow pools. "If we didn't catch anything, we didn't eat," Bernisa says.
The sexual abuse that had begun as a secret now spread into a sick obsession. Nuñez would emerge from the U-Haul, growl "Vámanos chicas," and then molest them. He raped one or both of them nearly every day for years. Sometimes Nuñez would let other men take the girls into the dirty U-Haul at the edge of the world.