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
"There weren't many schools down [in Tavernier]," she says. "All he had to do was sit outside of the school and follow them home. Then I wouldn't be here anymore. He is evil."
So Mortenson let each girl choose a new surname and moved the family to Hollywood. "That's what saved their lives," she says.
The two girls were safe now, but slipping apart. Already so different, they became polar opposites as teenagers. While Bernisa became more religious, attending church with Mortenson twice a week, Gloria rebelled.
Once, when Gloria was in Jacksonville getting surgery on her mangled left hand, she sneaked out and ran away. She was missing for two days. When she ran away again at age 15, it would take two months to find her.
She ended up on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, surrounded by bums, addicts, and drug dealers. "I would sleep in the motels with them," she says. She began to drink too. "I wasn't afraid," Gloria says. "I was free."
So was Nuñez. Court records show he was living in Miami at the time, sleeping on the beach and stealing beer from supermarkets. He was also moving north. "I think he was looking for them," Sergeant McCully says.
He might have found Gloria if cops hadn't gotten to her first. They spotted her on the beach. She ran. They caught her, pepper-sprayed her, and then took her to juvenile detention. She was there for 13 days before being returned to Mortenson's home. Gloria and Bernisa hardly spoke.
"I caused problems for her," Gloria says of her sister. "She went through a lot with Gerry. But I'd had enough of those people. We were treated like maids in Gerry's house." Gloria was happy to move into an apartment for troubled teenage girls in Miami. Like her mother, she began dating a much older man. She too became pregnant very young, at 16.
"I guess I felt like I was lacking something," she says. "With the absence of my mother, the lack of love from your own parent, I needed my own little being to love me."
Bernisa had her own problems. Ever since the abuse, she hadn't let a man touch her. When she married another orphan named David, she had trouble being intimate. He wanted children. She didn't.
Nuñez, meanwhile, had made it all the way up to North Miami Beach by 1998. He was arrested every couple of months for trespassing or being drunk and disorderly. By March 2002, Nuñez was living under a bridge on the Palmetto Expressway. That's where cops arrested him one night after he lit a fire to cook food.
Gloria was hitting her own rock bottom. She had a son to take care of and no skills, so she began stripping at a South Miami go-go club in 2002. "Dancing without clothes in front of scavengers was like swallowing a gun," she says. She took long pulls from the club's liquor bottles before climbing onstage. "It made the men easier to deal with."
Without realizing it, she was slipping beneath the same waters as her mother, pulled down by alcohol and men.
A strip club is a strange place to find salvation. But it was there, amid the black lights and booming music, that Gloria began to put her life back together. She also began to piece together the story of her mother's murder. It was a story that would put police back on Nuñez's trail, but perhaps too late.
Gloria's escape from her downward spiral hinged on a man she met at the go-go bar. Milton Solis was an unlikely customer: a strong but sweet-mannered mechanic who swept the dancer off her feet.
Solis helped persuade Gloria to quit the club and get a job at Target. They had a son together in 2007. But even as she was trying to live a normal life, Gloria never gave up on investigating her mother's death. While working at the retail giant, Gloria befriended a cop who worked part-time as the store's security guard. When she told him about her mother's death, he urged her to talk to homicide investigators.
At first, Gloria got nowhere. She says a female detective blew her off, listening to her but not even pulling Nilsa Padilla's file. "She said, 'Look, we're really busy right now. We can't help you,' " Gloria remembers.
In the end, Gloria wouldn't need the help of police. She had been trying to reach her mother's family in Connecticut for months. She found the prison visitation records for Bernisa's biological father, Miguel Cruz, and dialed every number possible.
A neighbor picked up. Moments later, Cruz himself was on the phone. He had been looking for Padilla for 25 years, he said. Soon, Gloria was on the phone with her aunt, Maggie Soto. "I thought you were all dead," Soto said between sobs. "And your sister, Alicia, how is she?"
Speaking to Soto spurred memories of Alicia's murder. Gloria decided to try Miami-Dade homicide detectives once more. This time, Sergeant McCully sat down with her. Gloria told him about her younger sister. Sure enough, when McCully subpoenaed state records, he found an Alicia Padilla-Guzman born in 1982. But the girl's name never appeared afterward.