"Some of it is blacked out, thank God," Bernisa says of the abuse. "If we remembered the whole thing, we probably would have gone crazy."

The abuse also began to fray the bond between the two siblings. Bernisa grew introverted, spending hours watching cartoons in the U-Haul. Her only other escape was weekly trips to a local church, but she fearfully returned after every sermon.

Gloria, by contrast, ventured out. She would disappear in the morning and return at dusk to talk to Bernisa about escaping. But Bernisa was too afraid. "I was sure that he would find us and kill us," she says.

Nilsa Padilla's torso, wrapped in a green trash bag, washed up on Virginia Key in 1985.
Courtesy of Miami-Dade Police Department
Nilsa Padilla's torso, wrapped in a green trash bag, washed up on Virginia Key in 1985.
Nilsa Padilla holds baby Bernisa in a 1977 photo.
Courtesy of Miami-Dade Police Department
Nilsa Padilla holds baby Bernisa in a 1977 photo.

One day the sisters were scavenging near the local bait shop when a car pulled up. Out stepped a white woman with red hair that burned like a bonfire in the sunlight. "Hi," Gloria said. "Your hair is so beautiful."

"What happened to yours?" answered Geraldine Mortenson, touching Gloria's rat's nest.

"We live over there," the child answered, pointing toward the trailer. "We don't get to take a bath. We go in the ocean."

"They were skinny, skinny, skinny," Mortenson remembers. "They were like stickball bats." Mortenson and her Puerto Rican boyfriend had driven down from Hollywood for a Sunday at the beach. When Nuñez walked over, the two men chatted in Spanish and drank beers. Gloria showed Mortenson the trailer. "I couldn't believe they were living like that," she says.

Mortenson returned the next weekend with food and clothes. She kept coming, grooming the girls while her boyfriend and Nuñez got drunk. The sisters stuck to her like the crabs that clung to the U-Haul in the morning. But they never mentioned what their father did to them.

Eventually, Mortenson rented an apartment nearby. One day she invited Nuñez and the girls over. But when he barked that he was ready to leave, the girls shrank from him and hid behind Mortenson. Nuñez leaned in close and growled, "If you ever take my girls from me, I will kill you."

The next time Mortenson drove down to Anne's Beach, the U-Haul was gone.


The girls' nightmare lasted four years. Even when the police took Nuñez away, the two girls did not say what he had done to them. It would take another child to scream out.

After Gerry Mortenson tried to befriend the girls, Nuñez hid them in a public housing project in Marathon. Bernisa, now 11, began attending the local elementary school. One night she invited a friend from a few doors down for a sleepover. Nuñez got drunk as usual.

The three girls fell asleep in a single bed after locking the door to keep Nuñez out. But in the middle of the night, he forced the door open with a fork. When Bernisa's friend woke up, Nuñez was on top of her. The 10-year-old elbowed him in the chest and leapt out of bed. When she turned on the light, Nuñez was on top of his daughters, his brown shorts around his ankles.

Even then, it took a couple of days for the cops to arrest him. When they finally put Nuñez and the girls into the back of a squad car, he leaned over to them and whispered, "Don't tell them anything." It was the last thing he would ever say to them.

At the police station, officers tried to get Bernisa to talk. But the 11-year-old said Nuñez never abused them. Then the cops tried Gloria. At first she also denied it all. But then the talkative 8-year-old began to tell the horrible truth.

"She would have to keep the bedroom door locked at night to keep Daddy from coming in and touching them," reads a Monroe County Sheriff's report from March 1989.

They'd kept quiet out of terror, police realized. "If I tell you, will you let my daddy go?" Gloria fearfully asked an officer.

Police didn't let Nuñez go, at least not for four years. He was convicted of two counts of lewd and lascivious acts on children. By the time he was released in 1993, his daughters had changed their names and disappeared. But they could not change the past. And as they became teenagers, Gloria and Bernisa would relive the horrors of their childhood in their own ways.

By strange fate, it was Gerry Mortenson who took them in. At first, the two girls were placed in a foster home. But when that woman lost her license, Gloria and Bernisa were put into a children's shelter. One day Mortenson came to get them. "The shelter called me up and asked if I still wanted them," Mortenson remembers. "Of course I said yes."

Mortenson moved to Tavernier in the Keys so the girls could stay in school, yet things were far from normal. The sisters regularly visited psychiatrists to discuss the sexual abuse. Gloria and Bernisa drew pictures of their mother bathed in crayon blood. But the psychiatrists apparently didn't believe them. "They thought we had PTSD," Bernisa says. Gloria remembers being called another word: "crazy."

But Mortenson believed them. So when police called her in early 1993 to tell her that Nuñez would soon be released, she knew she had to do something. "By this time, I knew about him killing their mother," she says. "They just told me: 'We couldn't prove anything.'

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