Girl Presumed Dead Is Returned to Real Mother

Times Staff Writer

Luzaida Cuevas finally got her daughter Delimar back Monday, more than six years after the girl was presumed to have died in her crib in a fire.

Allegedly kidnapped by a New Jersey woman when she was 10 days old, Delimar was returned by child welfare authorities Monday night to Cuevas. The 31-year-old mother has said that she never accepted assumptions by firefighters and medical examiners that her little girl had died in the December 1997 house fire.

Carolyn Correa, 42, is in jail on a $1-million bond, charged with kidnapping, arson and other crimes. Police say Correa snatched Delimar from Cuevas’ home and started the fire to cover up the crime. For the next six years, Correa told friends that the girl, whom she named Aaliyah, was her daughter. She raised the girl at a home in Willingboro, N.J., a few miles across the Delaware River from Cuevas’ home in North Philadelphia.


After sifting through the rubble of Delimar’s second-floor bedroom, a team from the city medical examiner’s office concluded that all traces of the child had been consumed by the flames. Because no human remains were found, a death certificate was never issued.

For six years, Cuevas continued to believe that her daughter had been kidnapped. Then in January, at a child’s birthday party in Philadelphia, she noticed a girl who looked very similar to her three other children. Cuevas later told reporters she had pretended to cut chewing gum from the girl’s hair, snipping a few strands that she later submitted for DNA tests to prove Delimar’s identity.

With her daughter back, Cuevas is now fielding book and movie offers. She has retained at least three attorneys, plus what a local television newscast referred to as a “show biz lawyer.” Her sister’s row house in the riverside Port Richmond section of Philadelphia, where Cuevas spoke to reporters last week, was besieged Monday afternoon by news vans and photographers hoping to get a glimpse of the girl.

One of Cuevas’ attorneys announced that the mother-daughter reunion would be private. According to Associated Press, Cuevas ushered the girl through a back door into her northeast Philadelphia home as night fell. The girl, dressed in a blue hooded jacket and pink pants, giggled but did not speak.

One of Cuevas’ attorneys, Alexander Murphy Jr., said in a statement that the family planned a “small, private gathering of friends and family” to celebrate.

Several participants in the strange saga have also hired lawyers. Delimar’s father, 39-year-old Pedro Vera, has retained a lawyer in his efforts to have a role in her new life.


Last week, a New Jersey judge granted Vera joint custody and visitation rights.

But Cuevas has shown reporters a copy of Delimar’s birth certificate with the father listed as “unknown” -- proof, she said, that Vera refused to sign the document. She said Vera once told her that “he wished the baby girl in my belly died.” She also has said that Vera refused in 1997 to help investigate Delimar’s disappearance, telling her to accept the fact that the baby was dead.

Vera and his attorney have denied the allegations. Vera is related by marriage to Correa, the alleged kidnapper.

In New Jersey, a man named Andre Moore has hired a lawyer to help him find out what happened to a child he says he fathered with Correa in 1997. Moore has told reporters that Correa was pregnant with their child at the time of the fire. He said Correa told him the night of the fire that she had given birth at home to a baby girl, whom he later named Aaliyah, after a rhythm and blues singer.

Since Correa’s arrest last week, Delimar had been living with a foster family in New Jersey while state child welfare authorities arranged for her return to her mother.

The girl screamed and wailed as she was taken away from the office of Correa’s attorney after Correa’s arrest, according to lawyer Jeffrey C. Zucker. But in the first meeting with her birth mother and father following a court hearing in New Jersey on Thursday, Delimar leaped out from under a table and yelled, “Surprise!” according to another of Cuevas’ lawyers, Anthony Cianfrani. “And after that, it kept getting better,” Cianfrani said. “It went really well.”

Delimar also has been under the care of a child psychologist, with whom she has developed “an extremely good rapport,” said Andy Williams, a spokesman for the New Jersey Division of Youth and Family Services.


Delimar has had to deal with the shock of being told that the woman she considered her mother is instead accused of being a criminal -- and of beginning a new life with a woman who essentially is a stranger. Williams said his agency wanted to ensure that the girl was emotionally prepared to live with her mother, who also has three sons, ages 4, 10 and 11.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia’s City Council last week approved a series of hearings to investigate the handling of the 1997 fire by the Fire Department and medical examiner’s office.

“First thing that popped into my mind is, ‘How can something like this happen?’ ” Mayor John Street told reporters last week. “We’re very concerned, and we’ll get to the bottom of it.”

Cuevas has said that she screamed in Spanish at the firefighters putting out the blaze that her baby had been stolen, but that no one would listen. Cuevas, who is from Puerto Rico, speaks halting English. Cuevas also has said that she ran upstairs to her daughter’s smoke-filled room and saw that the baby was not in her crib.

Retired Fire Marshall Vincent Heeney, who was at the scene of the blaze, told the Philadelphia Daily News from his home in California that he had Cuevas speak three times with Spanish-speaking firefighters that night. Each time, Heeney said, Cuevas said her baby was still in the room. She did not say the baby had been stolen, Heeney said, and she mentioned that heavy smoke prevented her from reaching the child’s bedroom.

The official fire report, obtained by the Philadelphia Inquirer, contained only two remarks: “DOA 1 female approximately 1 week old” and “injured 1 female approximately 30 years old with burns to face.” The report listed the cause of the fire as “electrical wires; improper use of homemade extension cord.”


City officials have said that a team from the medical examiner’s office spent two days combing the site of the fire, which was brought under control in 14 minutes. Hundreds of pounds of debris were sifted in an effort to find the child’s remains, officials said. A blanket that firefighters initially believed contained a baby’s body turned out to be a congealed mattress and other debris, they said.

“The child was presumed to be totally consumed by the fire,” police Lt. Michael Boyle said.

Cianfrani, Cuevas’ lawyer, has said he is considering suing the city.

After her first meeting with her daughter last week, Cuevas said she anticipated that Delimar would feel out of place at first. But, she added, “I believe in my heart that she will accept me.”

She said she was working to improve her English because her daughter spoke only English.

Cuevas said she would continue to call the girl Aaliyah but would tell her that it’s just a nickname. “Little by little, I will call her Delimar,” she said. “Her real name is Delimar.”