Murky details cloud girl's return

Published March 21, 2004|Updated Aug. 27, 2005

Behind the heart-tugging saga of Delimar Vera, the little girl who rose miraculously from the ashes, is a sordid web of contradictions, deceptions and secrets.

It's nearly impossible to find two people who agree on any significant event in her life, beginning with the house fire that supposedly killed her in her crib six years ago, when she was 10 days old.

This much is known: Luzaida Cuevas is Delimar's biological mother, not Carolyn Correa, who raised her as her own.

Everything else, from the girl's disappearance to discovery, is a murky cloud of he-said/she-said contradictions.

Meanwhile, there's a missing baby; a fire that may or may not have been accidental; the accusation of an affair between Correa and Delimar's father, Pedro Vera; and two parents who say they suspected the accused kidnapper for years but couldn't find her.

Yet relatives say the parents always knew where Correa lived, 15 miles away in New Jersey. In fact, they say, Correa brought the little girl to several family functions that Cuevas and Vera, her former live-in boyfriend, attended over the years.

Cuevas said she saw Delimar, now 6, and Correa for the first time since the Dec. 15, 1997, fire at a party two months ago, when in fact Cuevas wasn't there, partygoers said. Instead, it appears that she saw Delimar at a birthday party a year earlier, in January 2003, and took a sample of the little girl's hair for DNA analysis, but did not tell authorities for a year.

Furthermore, Cuevas, 31, has offered inconsistent explanations of what happened that mid-December night, when a blaze engulfed the upstairs of her two-story rowhouse in Philadelphia. Her accounts differ from those of Vera, fire officials, neighbors, friends and relatives.

Cuevas and Pennsylvania Rep. Angel Cruz, who first took her story to authorities last month, declined several requests for interviews on the discrepancies.

Anthony Cianfrani, one of Cuevas' attorneys, said, "This is all news to me.

"Even when there's truth, people remember events in different ways," he said. "People don't remember things exactly the same. It's wrong to focus on the victim. If someone's a victim, why ask if they should have caught it sooner?"

Vera and Cuevas say they suspected that Correa, Vera's cousin by marriage, had snatched Delimar. Yet they did not go to Correa's house in Willingboro, N.J., or seek help from police or even Vera's own sister, Evelyn, who was close to Correa.

To complicate this bizarre tale, Correa, charged with kidnapping and arson, apparently gave birth to a baby at her home three days before the 1997 fire. In prison in lieu of $1-million bail, she remains convinced that the girl she raised as Aaliyah Ann Hernandez is hers, although DNA tests prove otherwise, her best friend and her lawyer say.

Correa, 42, even paid an independent lab to conduct another DNA test before she was arrested, her attorney Jeffrey Zucker said.

"If she didn't think she was the mother, why did she spend $638 for the test?" Zucker asked. Those results aren't in yet, he said.

Correa's best friend, Mary Lou Puchales, said Correa had been hysterical when she discovered that the DNA showed Aaliyah was not hers.

"She told me, "Where's my baby, Mary Lou? I thought for six years Aaliyah was my baby. If Aaliyah's not my baby, who has mine?' " Puchales said.

Police investigators stopped talking about the case last week.

Those who know Correa, Cuevas and Vera are shaking their heads, wondering what's fact and what's soap-opera-style fiction.

"Nothing adds up," said Andre Moore, who was Correa's boyfriend at the time and who believed then that he was Aaliyah's father.

"I don't know who to believe. I don't know who's credible," he said. "It's a mystery. Now I'm trying to figure out the method behind the madness."

Delimar Vera was born at 5:45 p.m. Dec. 5, 1997, at Temple University Hospital. Carolyn Correa apparently gave birth seven days later, at 2:33 p.m. Dec. 12, in her modest four-bedroom yellow frame home in Willingboro.

Correa's daughter, Angelica, 17, said she had been away from home that weekend visiting her father and had not been there for the birth, but a family friend went over to help Correa. The friend has since moved and could not be reached. Zucker, Correa's attorney, said he, too, wants to find her.

Angelica said she saw her mom two days later, the day before the Dec. 15 fire. Correa was with the baby Angelica knew from then on as Aaliyah. She had seen the child every day since, and she did not change in appearance, Angelica said.

Moore, Correa's boyfriend, said he saw Correa throughout her pregnancy, and he was the one who named the baby Aaliyah, after the late R&B star.

A couple of hours before the fire, Moore, his mother and sister saw Correa with Aaliyah at his house in Florence, N.J., he said. He also said that Aaliyah's appearance throughout infancy had not changed.

He said Correa suggested she leave Aaliyah with Moore the night of Dec. 15. "She said I could have some quality time with the baby."

So Correa left, Moore said.

But his story, which he stands by, is contradicted by what Correa told her best friend, Mary Lou Puchales.

When Puchales, 36, visited Correa in prison recently, Correa told her that she had taken her baby to Luzaida Cuevas' house a few hours before the fire.

"She told me that Luzaida gave her a pill because Carol had pain," Puchales said. "She said, "Carol, take this, and you'll feel better.' She said she took it and was feeling dizzy, sleepy."

Correa, a mother of three, told Puchales that she, along with Pedro Vera, then took her baby to a friend's house and returned around midnight to pick her up. Puchales talked to the friend, who confirmed the story and plans to tell Zucker, Puchales said.

Vera, however, disputes this.

He told the Philadelphia Daily News that Correa came to his house about 4:30 p.m. and told him she could help hook him up with a telephone job.

"I didn't see any baby with her," he said, speaking in Spanish. "I saw a car seat with clothes in it _ no baby."

They ended up at a cousin's house when Correa told him that she had forgotten her purse at his house, and she left to retrieve it. About an hour and a half later, she returned upset, Vera said. She said his house was on fire and firefighters had rescued everyone _ but his baby was missing.

Zucker, Correa's attorney, said Correa was having an affair with Vera around the time of the fire. Vera adamantly denies this. "She says that now to make her look good," he said.

Cuevas has yet a different account. In the probable-cause affidavit and in interviews, Cuevas said that while Correa was visiting, she heard an explosion from upstairs.

She raced up the steps and discovered a fire in the corner of the front bedroom and attempted to fight through flames to find the infant. But the crib was empty.

Jeremy Farson, who lived two doors away at the time, said that Cuevas wasn't home when flames first erupted.

When he heard a commotion, Farson went outside to find an orange glow in an upstairs bedroom of Cuevas' house. "The baby's room is on fire! The baby's room is on fire!" a neighbor yelled to him.

Farson said the neighbor told him that Cuevas' two older children and the baby were in the care of their grandmother while Cuevas was out looking for work and Vera was elsewhere.

Farson, 29, said he grabbed a garden hose, crawled across porch roofs, smashed the closed bedroom windows and tried to put out the fire.

"It seemed like a 5-foot wall of flames came at me," he said. "I knew I wasn't going in. I just sat there and sprayed the hose as much as I could."

At some point, "Luzaida pulled up and ran out of somebody's car and freaked out and started screaming," he said. "It was around the time of the Fire Department's arrival."

Neighbors tried to stop Cuevas, but she burst into the house looking for her baby.

She came out in tears. "She kept crying, "My baby, my baby,' " said Latasha Thomas, a neighbor who said she remembers that night like it was yesterday.

"She didn't believe her baby was dead," Thomas said.

Vera pulled up after the Fire Department arrived with a shocked, grief-stricken look on his face, Farson said.

"He kept saying, "Oh, my God! My daughter! My daughter!' " Farson said.

The fire was under control within 14 minutes. Cuevas, who speaks halting English, contends she repeatedly told firefighters that Delimar was not in the room and was missing.

But retired fire Marshal Vincent Heeney said that he had her repeat her story three times, including once to a Spanish-speaking firefighter. Each time, she insisted her baby was in the room, he said.

Firefighters removed a small yellow package with what they thought were Delimar's remains. It turned out to be congealed portions of a mattress and other debris.

The fire was believed to have been caused by a homemade extension cord attached to a space heater near Delimar's crib. With no evidence of arson, Heeney said he had no reason to believe the fire was suspicious. The medical examiner's office went back to the scene two more times, once with a forensic anthropologist, but no remains were found.

Zucker thinks Heeney was right.

"I think you're going to find this was not an arson," Zucker said. "I think it was a coincidence. It was not a coverup to a kidnapping plan."

Cuevas suffered burns on her face and ears and was taken to Temple University Hospital for treatment. TV coverage from that night shows Correa at the scene, standing near the ambulance with Cuevas.

Correa obtained a birth certificate for Aaliyah on Jan. 6, 1998. She reported giving birth at home, listing herself as the attendant.

State registrar Joseph Komosinski said Correa didn't need to present a baby, only an affidavit from the local registrar's office. That affidavit, however, was accidentally destroyed, he said.

Cuevas said she didn't see Correa until the birthday party two months ago, but relatives and friends say that the two women and the girl, still called Aaliyah, attended some of the same social gatherings.

"Carol told me she'd seen Luzaida a lot over the years when she had Aaliyah with her, when Carol was in Philly with her family and friends," Mary Lou Puchales said.

"She said, "She always saw me with the little girl, so why did she wait six years to say she's got my daughter?' "

Vera admits seeing the girl at a baby shower for his niece four years ago.

Vera arrived as Correa and Aaliyah were leaving. Correa introduced the girl as her daughter. As she drove off, Vera waved goodbye. "The girl looked at me and gave me a smile" and waved, he said.

"That's when, well, I got a little feeling fast," Vera said. "From that moment, that's when I got the feeling."

After the fire, Cuevas and Vera moved several times, and they had a baby, Samuel, four years ago. Vera worked as a car mechanic and as a stock boy for about two years at a Dollar Tree.

Cuevas stayed home with Samuel and her two older children, Wilfredo, 11, and Israel, 10. Cuevas and Vera split up in December 2002. It's unclear what jobs, if any, Cuevas has had.

Jesus Nieves, who worked with Vera at the Dollar Tree said that Vera told him that he thought his baby was not dead, but had been taken.

"He told me he thought he knew who did it," Nieves said. "He suspected some lady sort of close to the family took the child. . . . He felt like the house burned down as a setup for the kid being kidnapped."

Teresa Santiago, who rented an apartment to Vera and Cuevas about five years ago, said the couple often talked about the daughter they believed hadn't died.

"She thought someone took her baby. She always told me she had a feeling she was still alive," Santiago said.

From December 2000 through March 2001, Cuevas sought counseling at APM, a social-services agency, according to her therapist.

Cuevas said she asked Vera for $500 so she could hire a private investigator to find Delimar. She said he told her he didn't have the money. He denies this.

She said she also approached an attorney to investigate, but couldn't afford his $100-an-hour fee.

As it turns out, she didn't need an investigator.

In January 2003, Pedro Vera's sister, Evelyn, hosted a birthday party for her granddaughter at her Kensington, Pa., home.

Correa went because she and Evelyn Vera are cousins who grew up like sisters. Cuevas was invited because her son, Samuel, is the nephew of Evelyn Vera.

Correa brought a 5-year-old girl she introduced as her daughter, Aaliyah. Cuevas saw the girl's smile and said she had the same dimple Delimar had as a baby.

In an interview, Cuevas said this party occurred in January, two months ago, not a year earlier.

Cuevas said that, convinced the child was Delimar, she told the girl that she had gum in her hair and yanked a few strands. She tucked the hair in a napkin that she then placed in her home safe, Cuevas said.

But Pedro Vera contends and relatives confirm that he, not Cuevas, attended this year's January birthday party, held at his sister Evelyn's house.

"Luz did not go to that party. It was me who went," he said.

He said he was in the kitchen when Aaliyah came to his side. "Hi, beautiful, who are you?" he said he asked. Correa introduced her as her daughter, and told the girl that Vera was her cousin. The girl kept looking at Vera.

The next day he called Cuevas to tell her he suspected that the girl called Aaliyah was their Delimar.

"I told her, "Look, I have a feeling that that girl is ours,' " he said. " "She has a look that's more like us than her. She looks like us. She looks like you. She has my coloring. I don't know. I have this feeling.' "

That's when Cuevas told him she still had the girl's hairs from the year before, he said.

Cuevas then went to Rep. Cruz, who contacted an assistant district attorney, who in turn persuaded the police Special Victim's Unit to investigate.

Vera said he tried to contact authorities. "I could never make contact because there was always a machine or something," he said.

Evelyn Vera and her daughters wonder why her brother and Cuevas didn't do more.

"I hear everyone saying that both had suspicions all along about who took their baby, and my question is: Why didn't they do anything?" Evelyn Vera asked.

"And why did they wait six years? They knew how to find Carolyn. Why would she want to hire an investigator? Why? When she knew who she was and where she was?

"They both thought Carolyn had the baby, but they didn't do anything. That's something I need to ask Pedro and her. Why?"

Evelyn Vera said she has called Cuevas but has not heard back from her and hasn't had a chance to question her brother.

She said she was "as shocked as everyone else" when she heard that Aaliyah was Delimar, and wonders how and why Correa did it.

"She was raised with us, in the family. I think something must have happened to make her do this," she said.

Zucker, Correa's attorney, is baffled by all the conflicting information. "There's got to be more to the story than is on the surface. At this point, I really don't know what it is," he said. "There must be a reason there's so many holes in the story."

Zucker is unclear about which legal strategy he will use for Correa, although he's considering an insanity defense. He still has a lot of interviews and research to do, he said.

He said he believes the baby she had in December 1997 was either stillborn or she had a miscarriage. He's looking into whether that could have led her to suffer some sort of extreme postpartum mental illness and to eventually convince herself that Aaliyah was her child.

As to whether he believes that she had a role in taking Delimar, he said, "I can tell you as the years passed, she believed this was her daughter, and that's what we're looking into now."

In 2001, Correa had a baby with her current husband, Bryan Busardo. The girl, who had a heart defect, died a few hours after birth, Zucker said.

Correa also has had two miscarriages, according to Moore, who took a paternity test in 1999 to be able to visit Aaliyah more often. The test proved he is not her father.

Friends describe Correa as an energetic, lively, doting mother. "To me she's the perfect mother," Puchales said.

"The early indication from everybody who had any contact with these people is that she took great care of this kid," Zucker said. "She took her for modeling photos. She took her for all kinds of stuff. She was a very good mother. She really cared for this child."

But she has a blemished history. In 1998 she was sentenced to five years' probation for setting a fire in a Hamilton, N.J., medical office where she had worked as a billing clerk. Police say she stole and cashed company checks and was trying to destroy evidence.

For now, Correa awaits an April 16 preliminary hearing on charges that she abducted Delimar. The girl now lives with Cuevas and her three siblings. Pedro Vera visits as much as he wants, though he said he has to call first.

With her face splashed on TVs and newspapers across the world, Cuevas has retained an entertainment lawyer because at least 25 producers are trying to buy the rights to her story. And representatives of TV interview shows from Oprah to Dateline are seeking to line up guests who'll talk about the story.

Meanwhile, Correa continues to wonder where her baby is, said Puchales, her best friend.

During a recent prison visit, Correa asked Puchales for a favor.

"Mary Lou, I've got some film in the car. Can you ask Aaliyah to take the last pictures to keep for memories?" she said.

Puchales understood why.

"She knows she's never going to see Aaliyah again."