Daughter lost in fire returns, but questions swirl in family

Published March 7, 2004|Updated Aug. 27, 2005

So far, the saga of 6-year-old Delimar Vera has all the trappings of a made-for-television movie: A child believed dead is found by a mother who never gave up hope, a suspect with a criminal past is locked up, authority figures are blamed for bungling the whole thing in the first place. The touching reunion has taken place. The bright future is planned.

But the story is far from over _ and far from simple.

Delimar's parents, Luzaida Cuevas and Pedro Vera, are at odds, not speaking to each other in public but instead using that arena to snipe back and forth.

The only mother Delimar has ever known, Carolyn Correa, 42, faces decades in prison if convicted of arson, kidnapping and other charges.

And authorities are convinced that someone must have conspired with her to steal the child.

Family ties are messy. Vera, 39, is Correa's cousin by marriage. Cuevas, 31, believes Vera's family is somehow involved in their child's abduction. She has said she would not allow Delimar contact with them; they say they're the only ones who can help the child adjust.

This much is known.

Delimar Vera was born on Dec. 5, 1997. Pedro Vera witnessed the birth; he even cut the cord connecting mother and child, his lawyer, Michael Luber, said.

But he did not sign the baby's birth certificate, which Cuevas said supports her claim that he did not want the child. Luber said his client misunderstood what was being asked of him.

"He has always acknowledged the child was his," Luber said.

Ten days later, in the late afternoon of Dec. 15, 1997, Carolyn Correa came to 4410 Hurley St. and asked whether Vera would look at her car, which had brake problems, according to Vera's family and lawyer.

Cuevas said she had never seen Correa before that day, and Vera, through his lawyer, said it was the first time his cousin had visited the home.

Correa came back to the house and told Cuevas that she, too, had recently had a baby.

Cuevas said as they were talking _ and it was an uncomfortable conversation _ the fire started upstairs in the front bedroom. It was about 7 p.m.

Neighbors heard the screams: Cuevas was standing in the middle of the street, wailing: "My baby! My baby!" in Spanish.

Smoke and flames poured from the second-floor windows of the home, said neighbor Gloria Mojica. Her son, Jose Rosario, rushed inside, tried to climb the stairs, and was repelled by the smoke.

He said he heard a baby upstairs.

"I heard crying," said Rosario, now 27. "I tried the best I could, but the smoke was choking me."

Cuevas said she twice checked Delimar's room during the blaze, suffering burns to her face as she braved smoke and flames _ and the baby was not in her crib either time.

Vera _ who, according to conflicting reports, was either alerted to the fire by his cousins or by Correa _ soon arrived at the scene. The fire was under control within 14 minutes. The baby, fire officials told the family, must have been consumed by the flames.

Because there were no remains, Delimar never had a funeral. The Medical Examiner's Office could not issue a death certificate and told the family to go to court for one.

The supposed death did not end the relationship between Vera and Cuevas, who stayed together until December 2002. They moved to another house nearby and had a second child, Samuel, in 1999.

Cuevas, who also has two older sons, said she prayed she would find her daughter. And in the years afterward, Vera told Mojica several times that he believed his baby had been "stolen" from him.

On the night of the fire, Correa visited the mother of then-boyfriend Andre Moore. Correa had told Moore that she was pregnant with his child. She carried proof in her arms, a baby called Aaliyah Hernandez, who she said had been born at her home.

On Jan. 24, Pedro Vera's sister, Evelyn Vera, hosted a birthday party for her 3-year-old granddaughter. She invited Cuevas, her brother's ex-girlfriend. She also invited Correa, a cousin who she said was like a sister.

During the party, Cuevas has said, Evelyn Vera walked Delimar over to her and said: "Isn't Carolyn's daughter beautiful?"

The rest of the story is now well-known, here and abroad. Cuevas pretended to pull gum from Delimar's hair, collecting five strands. She took her story to State Rep. Angel Cruz, who championed her cause. DNA tests proved Cuevas was the child's mother.

As soon as this week, Delimar may move into Cuevas's home.

Questions abound.

Cuevas and her family have said they suspect Pedro Vera of complicity in the crime. They insist he never wanted Delimar and did not help search for her.

Luber, Vera's attorney, disputes that. He said Vera wanted his daughter back just as much as Cuevas did. He also points out that police have said Vera has never been a suspect.

"Let's not focus on the biological parents and what they did or didn't do. They're the victims in this case," Luber said.