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Mom finds kidnapped daughter six years later

Philadelphia officials had ruled infant died in 1997 fire

Police declared Delimar Vera dead after a fire erupted at her house.
Police declared Delimar Vera dead after a fire destroyed much of her home.

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KYW's Walt Hunter on the case of a Pennsylvania child who was believed to have died in a fire but who was in fact kidnapped.
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Philadelphia (Pennsylvania)

PHILADELPHIA, Pennsylvania (CNN) -- A fire that authorities six years ago thought killed a 10-day-old girl was a ruse to kidnap the infant, Philadelphia police said Monday.

The baby, Delimar Vera, was sleeping in the upstairs front bedroom when a fire broke out at her family's two-story row house in north Philadelphia on December 15, 1997.

Luz Cuevas, her mother, could not find Delimar when she ran into the room. She eventually ran out of the house, overcome by smoke and burned on her face. Her two other children also survived, police said.

Remains of the infant's body were never found, and police concluded they had been incinerated in the flames.

The official cause of the fire was listed as an overheated extension cord attached to a space heater.

But Cuevas never fully believed her daughter died in the fire.

In January, she attended a birthday party for the child of an acquaintance and was struck by the resemblance of a 6-year-old girl to herself and her other children.

Telling the girl she had bubble gum in her hair, Cuevas was able to take strands of her hair in hopes a DNA test would prove she was right, according to Philadelphia police Lt. Michael Boyle of the special victims unit.

Luz Cuevas never fully believed her daughter died in the fire.
Luz Cuevas never fully believed her daughter died in the fire.

A state legislator helped put Cuevas in touch with police, who launched an investigation and had DNA tests performed that confirmed the girl is her daughter.

Police say Carolyn Correa, 41, a resident of Willingboro, New Jersey, a Philadelphia suburb, started the fire and kidnapped Delimar, whom she passed off as her own daughter.

Before the results of the DNA tests were in, officials placed the child in New Jersey state custody.

When police returned to Correa's home to confront her about the DNA results, she had fled, leaving behind three other children.

She remains a fugitive from multiple arrest warrants on charges that include arson, kidnapping and concealing the whereabouts of a child.

Lt. Thomas McDevitt of the special victims unit said Cuevas told police that Correa was a distant friend of a cousin of the baby's father, from whom she has separated.

Cuevas had met Correa the day before the fire, McDevitt said. Correa returned December 15, saying she had left her purse upstairs, he said.

The fire was discovered shortly after Correa left the house, McDevitt said.

It has not yet been determined when Delimar will be reunited with Cuevas.

Boyle said that when police told Cuevas about the DNA test results Saturday night she was "overwhelmed with joy."

"She sat there and shook and cried and kept saying, 'Thank you, thank you, thank you,'" Boyle said.

Police say they cannot fully explain why Delimar was declared killed.

Officers at the time found bone fragments they thought were the baby's remains, but tests later showed them to be nonhuman, McDevitt said.

When investigators returned to the scene, firemen had already dumped several hundred pounds of debris from the gutted bedroom in the back yard, McDevitt said.

The officers sifted through the debris but found mostly dry wool particles, which they were told resemble human ashes, but only those burned at 1,000 degrees for an hour or longer, McDevitt said.

The fire, which was confined to the bedroom, lasted only about 15 minutes and was nowhere near 1,000 degrees, McDevitt said.

McDevitt admitted this scenario is an explanation only "up to a point." On the other hand, officers had no reason to suspect arson or a kidnapping, he said.

CNN's Susan Chun and's David Osier contributed to this story.

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