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.