Six years ago, Luz Cuevas heard an explosion upstairs in her house and ran into her 10-day-old daughter's bedroom. The baby had vanished. Cuevas looked up and noticed the window was open, which struck her as odd on a cold winter night. Before she could make sense of the empty crib, she noticed a small fire that quickly engulfed the whole bedroom. Investigators determined that it swallowed the remains of the infant as well.
Cuevas never believed it had. But how does a mother convince her relatives that she's right when all they can hear is her grief? "We thought she was just traumatized by the fire," says her brother Evaristo de Jesus. And why, six years later, did a Pennsylvania politician and then the police decide to take this mother's instinct seriously? "I must admit, when Luz first came to me with this story, I had trouble believing her," says Angel Cruz, the Pennsylvania state representative who relayed Cuevas' story to Philadelphia law-enforcement officials. "Luz taught me that second-guessing isn't such a bad thing."
Cuevas' tale was bizarre, which makes this investigation that followed especially surprising; she never wavered from her conviction that her baby had been taken before the blaze, and then she came back with fresh evidence that the girl she named Delimar Vera was alive. The 6year-old was found across the Delaware River in Willingboro, N.J., 15 miles from Cuevas' Philadelphia home. Carolyn Correa, 42, a distant cousin of Cuevas' then boyfriend, Pedro Vera, was charged with kidnapping the child and setting a fire to cover her tracks.
Cuevas and Correa both belonged to a large circle of family and friends who live near Philadelphia's gritty Kensington neighborhood. On Jan. 24, 2004, Cuevas, Correa and a girl Correa claimed was her daughter, Aaliyah Hernandez, were together at a birthday party that Evelyn Vera, Pedro's sister, was throwing for her granddaughter. Cuevas says Evelyn brought Aaliyah over to her and said, "Isn't Carolyn's daughter beautiful? She's not your baby." This out-of-the-blue comment deepened suspicions Cuevas had always had about Correa's role in the disappearance of her baby; Correa was at the house at the time of the fire, while Pedro was out grocery shopping. So Cuevas looked closely at the little girl's face. "Those dimples were all the DNA I needed," says the 31-year-old. But after years of watching Cops on TV, Cuevas knew dimples weren't evidence: she followed Aaliyah upstairs, said, "Sweetheart, you've got some gum in your hair," and ripped five strands of hair off her scalp. Aaliyah yelped but didn't cry. Cuevas put the hairs in a ziplock bag. By the end of February, the police had matched the little girl's DNA to Cuevas' and Pedro's.
Correa turned herself in last Tuesday and was arraigned on charges that included kidnapping, arson and conspiracy. A judge set bail at $1 million; Correa's lawyer says he is considering an insanity defense. The police aren't convinced that Correa acted alone and say their investigation will continue. Meanwhile, some of Correa's relatives are denying they knew anything about the alleged abduction. Evelyn Vera says she never uttered the "she's not your baby" line. "They're just throwing out lies," she says. "What am I going to get out of saying that? Does it make any sense?"