Miami Murder Solved With Recovered Memories Two Decades Later
Illustration by Bastien Lecouffe Deharme
Hissing and spitting like an animal, high tide surged across the sands of Virginia Key. Dark waves broke over the jagged shore and scattered flotsam on the stones like tea leaves at the bottom of a cup. When the water receded, it left more than the usual behind.
As dawn bleached the black skies above Miami on April 4, 1985, something shone unnaturally in the early-morning light. A local beachcomber traced the glints to a bulky trash bag wedged between two boulders. He poked a finger through the dark green plastic. Something soft and pale was inside. It was human skin.
When Miami-Dade police arrived and cut open the bag, out spilled a corpse — or part of one, at least. Like an ancient sculpture attacked by vandals, the young woman had been shorn of her head and limbs. It was the second such discovery in 24 hours. The day before, two fishermen had tried to rescue what they thought was an injured manatee near Miami Seaquarium. It turned out to be a man's rib cage. Both bodies appeared to have been sawed apart with the same instrument. Cops nicknamed the couple "Tommy and Theresa Torso."
Over the next week, body parts appeared all around Biscayne Bay. The woman's thigh washed up in front of a hotel in Sunny Isles Beach. Her leg landed ashore on Fisher Island. And her head was found floating in Government Cut. It was the height of the cocaine-cowboys era, and brutal murders weren't uncommon. But the sickening string of body parts stoked fears of a serial killer torturing the city with what Miami Herald reporter Edna Buchanan called a "grisly puzzle."
"Police... wonder why no one appears to have reported the couple missing," Buchanan wrote. Without leads, cops desperately tried to cull fingerprints from the female victim's one recovered hand.
Instead, it would be more than a quarter-century before police caught a break.
"Back then we were finding so many dope murders," says retired Miami-Dade homicide detective John Parmenter. "We all thought [the bodies] had something to do with drugs."
He pauses and adds quietly, "How wrong we were."
Charles McCully receives at least one call per week, usually Fridays. The phone in the Miami-Dade Police Department's Cold Case Squad rings, and the hulking sergeant with a gravelly voice and the nickname "Buck" warily picks up. Usually it's someone looking for a long-lost family member. Occasionally, it's a drunk concocting a bogus murder story. One guy in particular calls regularly from California and disguises his voice just long enough to get the veteran cop's hopes up.
So when Gloria Hampton walked into McCully's office in the summer of 2010 with a story stranger than fiction, the sergeant was suspicious.
"I just need somebody to listen to me," Gloria pleaded. The short 29-year-old with wide hips, tan skin, and curly hair had been through years of psychiatric therapy, she said. From the haze of her hurtful childhood, however, she had pulled one particular memory and polished it until clear.
"I saw my father kill my mother when I was 4 years old," she said. "He put her body into an army-green bag."
McCully was still skeptical. Cops don't put much faith in recovered memories, and these were 25 years old. But after Gloria left, he cracked open musty boxes of cold-case files. He flipped through yellowing photographs and police reports for hours before pulling out a thin binder that hadn't been touched in years. It was the unsolved murder from April 4, 1985. And inside was a photo of a woman's body in an army-green bag.
DNA analysis quickly confirmed that Gloria's mother, Nilsa Padilla, was the murder victim known for decades as "Theresa Torso." Gloria's father, Jorge Walter Nuñez, instantly became the only suspect. For Miami-Dade police, it was a breakthrough in one of the department's oldest and most vexing cases. For Gloria, it was salvation.
"They thought I was crazy," she says of the cops, foster parents, and caseworkers who ridiculed her claims for years. "Now they know I'm not."
South Florida has long been a refuge for drifters, drug dealers, and the deranged. On average, at least three corpses join the ranks of Miami's nameless dead every year. Rarely do police uncover their identities.
Nilsa Padilla is the exception. Nearly 30 years after their mother's death, Gloria and her sister, Bernisa Davis, have helped solve one of Miami's most mysterious slayings. But as cops would soon discover, their incredible survival story is also a dark tale of rape, madness, multiple murders, and revenge like no other in this city's sordid history.
Despite the two sisters' painful testimony, however, one final piece is still missing from the grisly puzzle: Jorge Walter Nuñez.
Padilla's killer remains at large.
Nilsa Padilla's short life was littered with beer cans and bad men.
She was born August 11, 1958, in the poor Puerto Rican fishing town of Cataño, near San Juan. Her parents were alcoholics whose binges left Padilla and her four siblings to wander the windswept malecón for days at a time. It didn't take Padilla long to get into trouble.
"My cousin wasn't a good influence on us," says Maggie Soto, who grew up with Padilla in Cataño. Padilla was plain but attractive, with dark hair and eyes like black marbles. What she lacked in beauty she made up for in boldness. "Boys would look at us and she would immediately walk to them, tell them her name, tell them that we were all single," Soto says. Padilla would also steal candy from the corner store to give to her cousins. Like the storms that swept into Cataño from the sea, the troubles that would sink Nilsa were already visible on the horizon. "She was the wildest," Soto says.
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.
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.
"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.
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.'
"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.
"That's when I knew Gloria was telling the truth," McCully says. He ordered the case reopened. And Theresa Torso's remains, kept for a quarter-century in the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner's "bone room" — an air-conditioned closet stacked high with cardboard boxes full of skeletons — were brought out into the daylight for the first time since that April morning in 1985.
Gloria eagerly gave investigators her DNA. Suddenly she could imagine bringing her father to justice. "I want him caught alive," she says. "Right now he thinks he got away with it. I want to see him in court when the jury says he's guilty. I want to see his face when he realizes that he's fucked."
Her sister, however, wanted nothing to do with it. "What is catching him going to bring me now?" Bernisa says. "It's not going to bring my childhood back. It's not going to fix anything for me. It's just going to cause me more anger and pain."
But she gave detectives her DNA anyway. "I did it for Gloria," Bernisa says.
On March 9, 2012, the DNA results arrived from the laboratory at the University of North Texas. They were a match. (The other body found in the water in April 1985 has never been identified. Cops now believe it might have been a male friend of Nilsa Padilla's whom Nuñez killed the same night.)
"We were ecstatic," says Sandra Boyd, an investigator at the Miami-Dade Medical Examiner. "To hold onto these remains for 25 years and then all of a sudden get a match, all of us in the department jumped for joy."
New technology is finally cracking open some of the county's most vexing mysteries. "It's very tough to get DNA out of 25-year-old bones," Boyd says. "The results were remarkable."
But Gloria's elation over being able to bury her mother was undercut by a call from the Miami-Dade Police Department. Cops had issued an arrest warrant for her father. But it wouldn't be easy to catch him. Nuñez had been deported to Peru in 2004.
Gloria was furious. "He was still in the country when I first approached the detective," she says. "If she had believed me, my father would be in jail right now." Instead, Gloria was left to obsess over a single question: Now how are we going to catch him?
In fact, it wasn't even clear if Nuñez was still alive, Det. Jim Gallagher told her. Nuñez's Peruvian identification number had expired in 2010 and had never been renewed. "He's either living out in the jungle or he's long dead."
Bernisa Davis didn't want to dig up the memories of her mother's murder. She didn't want to sift through the fear and pain of living with a monster. She doesn't even care if that monster is caught. But she knows that by telling her story to New Times, she is finally speaking out. And that could be dangerous.
"We're the bait," she says of the Miami-Dade Police Department's plan to publicize her and her sister's story. "I think my father is still alive. And he's coming to get us."
Fourteen years after they last saw Nuñez, the wounds he inflicted upon the two sisters have largely healed. Both women have families and jobs. They live in the same city and speak nearly every day on the phone. But the sisterly bonds that were severed by abuse have yet to fully mend. And they are still bitterly divided over their mother's memory.
"Gloria forgives our mother," Bernisa says. "But I don't even want to hear her name."
Sitting in her shoebox apartment in north central Hollywood, Bernisa says that if she's angry with anyone, it's her mother, not Nuñez. "She picked a drunk and a drug addict," she says.
Much of Bernisa's bitterness has come in the past seven years, since she had her own daughter. She relented to her husband's demands for a child, only for them to divorce last year. "Living with someone else is being trapped," she says of her marriage. "I never wanted to have a kid. I saw my baby sister die in my hands. I didn't want to have a daughter die in my hands as well.
"But my daughter is my twin," she says, pointing to a photo of little Bernisa on the refrigerator. It is the only photo in the narrow one-bedroom apartment, which is dominated by a giant cardboard castle. The only other item on the bare white walls is a crucifix, hung above the castle turret like a morning star.
"I just want to take my daughter to the park, help her with her homework," Bernisa says, "the usual stuff that I never had."
Three miles west, near Florida's Turnpike, the walls in Gloria's apartment are covered with pictures and plaques. There is a mechanic's award for Milton and photos of Gloria's two sons. Like her sister, Gloria has overcome so many horrors that her proudest achievement is simply keeping those horrors from touching her own children.
"Half the people out there prostituting themselves or using drugs have not gone through the stuff that I've gone through," she says. "I didn't turn to drugs. I didn't turn to prostitution. I'm really proud of that. I'm a survivor."
Yet the family she has created will never quite replace the family she lost. And the biggest photo on the wall is not of her boys but of an eerily familiar scene. It is the snapshot that Nilsa Padilla sent home to Puerto Rico — the one in which she's smiling and holding up baby Bernisa for the world to see.
Gloria stares up at the woman whose murder was her first memory and says, "I think she loved us."
Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Jorge Walter Nuñez, also known as Rafael Guzman, is encouraged to call the Miami-Dade Police Department's Sgt. Charles McCully at 305-471-2334 or Crime Stoppers at 305-471-TIPS (8477).
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