- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 2, 2004

PHILADELPHIA — Luz Cuevas took one look at the dimpled, dark-haired little girl at a birthday party and instantly knew two things: She was watching her own daughter — declared dead in a 1997 fire — and she needed a way to prove it.

So Miss Cuevas pretended the 6-year-old girl had gum in her hair, removed five strands of hair from the child’s head, folded them in a napkin and placed them in a plastic bag.

“Because of TV, I knew they needed hair for the DNA,” Miss Cuevas said yesterday.

The DNA tests confirmed a mother’s intuition, and investigators believe a family acquaintance stole the 10-day-old baby from her crib, set the fire to cover the crime and raised the little girl, Delimar Vera, as her own.

Carolyn Correa of Willingboro, N.J., who was wanted on charges of arson and kidnapping, surrendered to police in Philadelphia yesterday afternoon, said her attorney, Jeffrey Zucker.

Delimar has been taken into state custody in New Jersey. It was not immediately clear when she would be reunited with her mother.

Fire officials believed the 1997 blaze at Miss Cuevas’ Philadelphia home was sparked by a home-rigged extension cord connected to a space heater. The fire was put out in 10 minutes, but Delimar’s room was gutted, and investigators concluded that the infant’s body must have been consumed by the intense heat and flames.

But Miss Cuevas said several things made her suspicious.

“I went inside the room and looked in the crib and she wasn’t there,” Miss Cuevas said, adding that the window was inexplicably open though it was a cold winter evening. Police and fire officials that night told the hysterical mother that “maybe it was my nerves.”

Miss Cuevas said she was also suspicious because Miss Correa had announced that she was pregnant shortly after Delimar’s birth. According to Miss Cuevas, Miss Correa abruptly ceased contact after the blaze.

Miss Cuevas, who speaks in halting English, said she instantly recognized the child as her daughter at the Jan. 24 birthday party. It was not clear what brought the girl, who was being called Aliyah, and her biological mother to the same party.

“When I see her, I saw that she was my daughter,” said Miss Cuevas, 31. “I want to hug her. I want to run with her.”

She sought help from state Rep. Angel Cruz, who represents the poor, largely Hispanic neighborhood where Miss Cuevas lives. Mr. Cruz said he was skeptical at first but “something inside” told him that there could be something to the bizarre claim. He called police, who contacted Miss Correa for a DNA test that ultimately proved Miss Cuevas right.

“It’s a mother’s way. It’s motherly intuition,” the Democratic lawmaker said.

Miss Cuevas and Delimar’s father, Pedro Vera, 39, had a baby boy after Delimar’s disappearance but broke up under the strain of losing their daughter.

“Right now, I want to see my daughter,” Pedro Vera said. “I am so happy. I just want to see my daughter.”

It will be up to a Family Court judge to decide where the girl will live.

Miss Correa pleaded guilty to a 1996 arson at a medical office in New Jersey and got five years’ probation, according to court records.

Neighbors who used garden hoses and fire extinguishers in a futile attempt to help Miss Cuevas reach her newborn on the night of the fire reacted to the news with joy and anger.

Jose Rosario, a former next-door neighbor, said he had a drink to celebrate.

“I was happy she was alive,” said Mr. Rosario, who recalled grabbing a fire extinguisher and desperately trying to enter the window where Delimar was supposed to have been.

“Somebody could have got hurt trying to save someone who wasn’t in there,” Mr. Rosario said. “The way she hurt those people, she should be put away in a crazy house.”

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