March 23, 2021

18 Minutes

by Crime Show

Background show artwork for Crime Show

After a fire blazes through her home and kills her baby, a mother struggles to pick up the pieces of her life. Six years later, investigators show up with some shocking news.

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Transcript

Emma Courtland: Hey, folks. A quick warning before we get started: this episode mentions the death of a child. Take care when listening.


Michael Boyle: See that up there? There's a picture of me.


Emma: I'm in the office of a retired Philadelphia police officer named Michael Boyle. He's pointing to a photo hanging on the wall behind me.


Michael Boyle: That's in the White House.


Emma: Where is it?


Michael Boyle: In the White House. In the Oval Office.


Emma: Oh my God!


Michael Boyle: The top picture, with President Bush.


Emma: Holy cow, yeah!


Emma: In the photo. Boyle's posing with George W. Bush. Boyle was invited to the White House in recognition of this one case he worked years ago. It was a case that happened in the spring of 2004. The entire city of Philadelphia was captivated by the story of a baby, a fire, and a mother driven insane with grief. Over the years, two families were torn apart. There were fake funerals, false pregnancies and DNA test tampering. There were investigations and reinvestigations, and—of all things—a Lifetime movie.


Emma: I'm Emma Courtland. This is Crime Show.


Michael Boyle: This folder right here contains copies of all the interviews, okay?


Emma: Yeah.


Emma: The file is thick. It sits on his desk in front of him, but he doesn't need it. He remembers the investigation that brought him to the White House very well.


Michael Boyle: At the time, I was the commanding officer of the child abuse unit here at special victims. And we handled all cases that were referred to us by the children and youth agencies of physical or sexual abuse of children. And we also handled cases that were brought in by 911 calls. But this one day, a friend of mine who was a district attorney here in Philadelphia, he called me and said, "Mike, I've got to ask you a favor." I said, ""What?"


Emma: The friend asked Boyle to arrange an interview with this one woman from North Philadelphia. She'd come to the office of her local representative with a story so far-fetched that even her family didn't believe it. But the politician felt an obligation to report it through proper channels. Boyle was that channel.


Michael Boyle: Then he asked me to take a look, and would we at least interview her? I said, "Absolutely, we'll do it."


Emma: The woman's name was Luzaida Cuevas. She spoke very little English.


Michael Boyle: Maybe 10 percent. You know, not enough to have a meaningful conversation. I couldn't interview her. But at the time I had a good detective Manny Gonzales, Manuel Gonzales, who was fluent in both English and Spanish. And he's also a kind of a jaded, hardened—you know, that kind of cop, you know what I mean? I said, "Look, I want you to do this."


Emma: Here's Manny.


Manny Gonzales: We in Special Victims, we deal with victims of crime all the time. We deal with people who lie. People who tell the truth. And, we would like to think that we can filter the bullshit. The lieutenant comes to me and says to interview this lady who lost a child in the fire. I don't know whether I want to call her crazy, but they just felt that she was just kind of like fantasizing that her child was still alive.


Manny Gonzales: She comes into the office. I take her to the interview room. She came there, she looked—you could see the sadness in her face.


Emma: Manny sits her down and asks her to tell him what happened. Luzaida declined to be interviewed for this story, but this is what she told Manny.


Emma: In December, 1997, she'd given birth to a beautiful baby girl with light brown skin and light brown hair and a dimple on her right cheek. She named the baby Delimar and brought her home to meet the family. It was a particularly cold winter in Philadelphia. The house didn't have any heat, and the baby was only 10 days old, so the family rigged up an electrical heater, upstairs by the baby's crib, and tucked her in for the night.


Emma: It was close to Christmas, and all around the neighborhood people were having get-togethers. Downstairs in her home, Luzaida was doing the same. Nothing wild, just a few family members hanging out in the living room. A cousin stopped by. It was all pretty innocuous until Luzaida heard an explosion upstairs.


Emma: She ran up to where Delimar was sleeping. She found flames in the room, but she was unable to find her baby. Luzaida got so close to the heat, it burned the skin on her face. But the smoke was overwhelming, so she ran outside to call for help. The firefighters arrived and put the flames out quickly. Luzaida screamed from the sidewalk as neighbors gathered around. And then, to her horror, she saw one of the firefighters carrying something out in a yellow blanket. They told her it was the remains of the baby.


Emma: The fire marshal determined the cause of the explosion was a homemade extension cord connected to a space heater. Delimar had been killed by a device her mother had set up to keep her warm. There were police reports and fire reports and media reports—and all of them said the baby was dead. It was an open and shut case. That is, to everyone except Luzaida.


Emma: She insisted the baby hadn't been in the room when it caught fire. She'd searched the place herself. But if the baby wasn't in the room, where was she? And what exactly had the firefighters carried out of the house that night?


Emma: Luzaida's list of questions grew even longer when the medical examiner determined that no human remains had been found in the yellow blanket. They concluded that the infant's body had been completely incinerated by the fire. Still, Luzaida didn't believe them. Her baby wasn't dead—her baby was missing.


Emma: Luzaida tried to convince anyone to help her find out what happened to her child. She pleaded with friends and family—even strangers—but everyone just called her crazy. People said she was blinded by her grief. They said she was trying to avoid moving on. Even her own husband told her to give up the search. He wanted to move on, but Luzaida couldn't let it go.


Emma: The couple gave birth to a second child sometime after the fire, but the strain of the disagreement drove a wedge between them that grew and grew until finally they got divorced. Luzaida felt helpless and alone. She carried the weight of her loss everywhere she went. But then, six years after the fire, the weight lifted.


Emma: Luzaida was at a kid's birthday party. It was at the home of a distant relative. And there, she saw a little girl with light brown skin and light brown hair and a dimple on her right cheek. The little girl looked to be about six years old—the same age Luzaida's daughter Delimar would have been. And when she smiled, Luzaida felt certain that this was the same little girl she brought home from the hospital six years ago.


Emma: She also knew she needed proof. She'd seen enough cop shows to know that she needed DNA evidence, so she deployed a trick she'd learned on TV. She told the girl to come close. She said, "You've got a little gum in your hair. Let me get it out for you." Luzaida plucked five hairs from the girl's head, and then tucked them carefully in her pocket.


Manny Gonzales: She had the hair in a plastic bag. And she gave me that and said, "This will prove that that's my daughter, because you guys can test the DNA."


Emma: In the interview room with Manny, Luzaida said she also had a suspect: that cousin who'd stopped by her house on the day of the fire? She was at this birthday party, telling people she was the little girl's mother. The Philadelphia PD could unleash the full force of its Special Victims Unit to investigate Luzaida's case, but only if Manny believed her story. Which seemed unlikely, since nobody else had.


Emma: The hairs couldn't prove the little girl was Delimar. After all, they could've been anyone's hairs. But to Manny, they proved something equally important: at the very least, Luzaida believed her own crazy story.


Manny Gonzales: It's hard to explain, because I just felt—I just had a feeling inside. It was like a gut feeling. So when I left, when I got out of there, the lieutenant was like, "Like, what do you think?"


Michael Boyle: He came out of there with tears in his eyes. He said, "I believe her. She's telling the truth."


Manny Gonzales: Lieutenant Boyle has always been one of those guys that if you believe the victim, if you really believe that that's—then he's 100 percent in. Like, he'll give you a 100 percent blessing to do everything you got to do to solve it. And that's what he did.


Emma: Manny's first stop was at the home of that cousin, the mother of the little girl Luzaida saw at the birthday party. Her name was Carolyn Correa. Correa lived across the river in a New Jersey township called Willingboro. It was a typical, middle-class suburban community. Correa had a small house with peeling yellow paint, where she lived with three older children—and the little girl Luzaida saw at the birthday party.


Emma: Manny had called in advance to let her know he'd be coming. He explained that there'd been an accusation, a question about the maternity of her little girl, and that he wanted to talk to her about it. He asked if he could meet the child. Correa said, "No problem. Come on over." But when Manny arrived at the house, the little girl wasn't there.


Manny Gonzales: She said that her daughter was in the Poconos with a family friend for some type of family function.


Emma: She was in the Poconos, hours away. All right. Then could Correa show some kind of documentation to prove the little girl was her daughter?


Manny Gonzales: So Carolyn Correa then says that she has to go to the car to get to her daughter's birth certificate. But Carolyn Correa then goes to her car, opens the trunk and there's tons of bags in her trunk. I'll say more than 10 or 15 bags of just clothes, kids' clothes. It looked to us like she was trying to flee. To us, that was the impression.


Emma: But it was just an impression. Correa said she couldn't find the birth certificate. There was just too much stuff in her trunk. But she assured the detectives she would bring her daughter to their office the following day and they could take a DNA test then. So the detectives left, and waited for her to come in.


Emma: Instead, they got a call: Correa wasn't coming. She'd lawyered up, and made it clear she had no intention of subjecting her daughter to a DNA test without a warrant. To get that warrant, they would have to justify why they were looking for a kid who'd been declared dead, which meant they'd have to establish a reason to doubt all the officials who'd claimed she'd been incinerated. Their search for the truth would take them back to the beginning of Luzaida's story: the fire.


Michael Boyle: So the presumption was at the time—and I've seen the records—was that the child was just completely extinguished and incinerated without any human remains.


Manny Gonzales: So we need to find out who were the firefighters that responded that day. We need to interview all the firefighters that were there.


Emma: Luckily, the fire had been covered by every news network in the city. So Manny visited all of them, collecting footage, making lists of witnesses. And then he picked up the phone and started making calls to anyone who might have seen what happened to this baby.


Manny Gonzales: We spoke to the fire marshals, and they also said they never in their experience—one guy had, like, 30 years on, never seen somebody totally consumed from a fire, not even a baby. That that was never heard of, in their opinion. Especially with the time of the fire, they never, ever heard of that.


Michael Boyle: In order to cremate a body—at least an adult body—it takes intense heat for 14 hours. And even then, there's still bone tissue that has to be ground up. But for an infant, maybe not as much. But still, that fire only lasted 18 minutes.


Emma: In other words, the fire hadn't lasted long enough to incinerate the body. Not by a long shot. We reached out to representatives at the fire department and the medical examiner's office to explain the oversight, but they either couldn't be reached or they declined to comment.


Michael Boyle: And I can't explain what kind of disconnects occurred back then, because we weren't involved in the case. It was a fire, and Special Victims wasn't involved. But I think that one agency expected the other agency to solve the riddle, and nobody even looked at the riddle.


Emma: Luzaida's first claim had turned out to be true: her child had not died in the fire. So SVU turned their investigation to her second claim: that Carolyn Correa had taken her child. And the deeper they looked, the more troubling the information they found. What came into view was a person who, at best could be described as "troubled," and at worst, a con artist. Carolyn Correa had a checkered past—especially when it came to children.


Manny Gonzales: We were able to find that she had a history of faking pregnancies, and she would try to get child support from the boyfriends.


Michael Boyle: And she wasn't pregnant at all, because she—we found out through, again, backtracking and backtracking, that she had had her tubes tied.


Manny Gonzales: She staged a death of a baby she said she had at home.


Michael Boyle: She even at one time brought an urn containing ashes to a funeral director in New Jersey, and had a funeral for ashes that we don't even know what they were. And she had a viewing, and people gave her money.


Emma: They also found out that she'd been arrested before—for arson.


Michael Boyle: She was working for a doctor up in Hamilton, New Jersey, and they discovered checks were being missing from the bottom of the book. Well apparently, they caught onto her and they were in a closet. She set fire to the closet using an aerosol can. Now remember back when I said that they were using space heaters? We think that she may have set it up. Somehow I think she used some kind of an aerosol can that she put next to or on top of that heater, so that when it heated enough sufficiently—kaboom! And that caused the fire.


Emma: Within a couple weeks, SVU had collected enough evidence to establish probable cause against Correa. But when it came to the final analysis, the only way they were gonna prove this was through DNA. The detectives set up a meeting with Carolyn Correa, her attorney and the little girl who Carolyn said was her daughter, Aaliyah. Almost immediately after they showed up, Correa asked to take Aaliyah to the bathroom. One of the detectives there was Kim Boston.


Kim Boston: I just had a feeling something was gonna happen, and I went to the bathroom in the attorney's office right before they walked in there. And I was in one stall and they didn't know I was in there. And you could hear them saying, "Open your mouth. I have to spray this stuff in there."


Emma: At the time, no one knew what it was Correa was spraying in the little girl's mouth, though later they would find out it was Correa's own spit. But the detectives knew they had to throw the swab out and take another one. Back then, DNA tests could take weeks to process and analyze. But Boyle knew he didn't have that kind of time, so he called in some favors and put a rush on the analysis.


Michael Boyle: I wanted this turned around in 24-48 hours at the most. They assured me they would. They worked around the clock. And Sunday morning at 10 o'clock that I got a call from them.


Manny Gonzales: I'm sitting at home on a Sunday, and Lieutenant Boyle gives me a call, and he tells me basically, "I need you to get dressed. I need you to meet me at the office immediately."


Emma: The DNA test results had come back, and they showed—beyond any doubt—that Luzaida was right. The baby had not died in the fire. She'd been living less than 10 miles from where she'd gone missing. And Manny, who'd been the first person to really take Luzaida seriously, was gonna get to be the one to tell her the good news.


Manny Gonzales: I called Luzaida on the phone, and I said, "Listen, I need you to come to my unit immediately, because I've got to talk to you. I need you to come in." And she comes in, and I put her in the same office where I interviewed her and I let her know that Delimar is your daughter. And forget about it, she just broke—broke down in tears. She was—she almost fainted.


Emma: "Delimar is your daughter." The words she'd waited six years to hear. Luzaida had been right all along. She'd defied all the odds, the experts and the establishment, and proven that her daughter was alive. Here's Luzaida on the evening news.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Luzaida Cuevas: And when she walked in front of me, she smiled. Yeah, and I said, "Look it. She's my daughter.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, newscaster: Well, her instinct was right. The little girl smiling back at Luz Cuevas was indeed her daughter, a daughter kidnapped six years ago.]


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Luzaida Cuevas: Yeah, I have a feeling. I always had a feeling that my daughter's alive.]


[NEWS CLIP: Luz Cuevas is jubilant today, knowing that soon she'll be reunited with her now six-year-old daughter Delimar, ruled dead by the fire department six years ago in this Feltonville house fire.]


Emma: Ronnie Polaneczy covered the story for the Philadelphia Daily News at the time.


Ronnie Polaneczy: I think we were going through a spate of stories about kidnapped kids, missing children, missing children. And to find out that someone got reunited? Wow! Like, death was reversed. It's like someone literally came back from the dead.


Emma: Police arrested Carolyn Correa, and she was eventually sentenced to nine to 30 years in prison for charges related to the kidnapping. Social services arranged for Delimar to be reunited with her mother. Boyle and Manny were given commendations by the President. And the Lifetime Network bought the rights to Luzaida's story.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Lifetime movie: "The DNA was a match, and the girl is Delimar."]


Emma: What do you think about the movie?


Delimar Vera: I think it's bullsh—no, I'm kidding. [laughs]


Emma: This is Delimar Vera today. She's 23 years old now, and she's talking about Little Girl Lost. That's the name of the Lifetime movie they made about her kidnapping. The story focuses on Luzaida's search for her missing daughter, and it ends with this tear-jerking, violin-swelling-type reunion. The kind that implies they lived happily ever after. Which is not what happened.


Emma: Less than 10 years later, Delimar and Luzaida would be ripped apart again. Only this time, there would be no cameras to cover it.


[00:18:59.22]***


Delimar Vera: People think that everything was butterflies and rainbows after I came back with my mom, but it was not like that at all. It was really hard.


Emma: Delimar was reunited with Luzaida in March of 2004, and it really was a joyous reunion. But the truth was, the mother and daughter hardly knew each other.


Delimar Vera: We were like two strangers. I felt like I wasn't the perfect daughter for her. I wasn't the daughter that she expected to get back.


Emma: When Luzaida lost Delimar, she was just 10 days old—a beautiful little blank slate. And the whole time Delimar was missing, that was the image of her that Luzaida held onto. Over the years, the image took on weight, and it anchored her to the search for her daughter, long after everyone else had given up.


Delimar Vera: She would rock my blankets to sleep and act like it was me. Like she had a baby, and then the baby was gone. And she knew that I wasn't dead. Nobody believed her.


Emma: When Delimar came home, Luzaida was forced to confront the fact that that perfect baby she'd been cradling at night? She was gone for good. The real Delimar wasn't a blank slate anymore. She'd grown up, she was six years old now, and she'd been shaped by someone else's parenting. Someone less careful. When Delimar talks about Carolyn, she calls her her kidnapper. So from here on out, we will too.


Emma: Delimar doesn't remember a lot about what life was like at her kidnapper's house. But she does remember the people she thought were her family, and the way she felt when she was with them.


Delimar Vera: I felt like nobody really paid attention to me. Like, I was just that kid in the corner, and nobody really cared. Like, I felt—not like a pet, but it was weird. Like, I don't know how to explain it.


Emma: Her kidnapper worked long hours and late nights, so Delimar spent most of the time with her older siblings, who weren't terribly interested in parenting her.


Delimar Vera: I was actually really close to my sister, because I'd spend the most time with her. She was always babysitting me. We fought a lot. She called me a lot of names.


Emma: Your sister did?


Delimar Vera: Yeah.


Emma: What'd she call you?


Delimar Vera: [laughs] A bitch. And my little bad ass called her a bitch back.


Emma: Even by her own account, Delimar was pretty bad. So when Delimar came back to Luzaida's, basic things like having a bedtime and a regular schedule—even playing with other kids her age—was totally new and kind of uncomfortable. And sometimes, those very basic things became huge sources of conflict.


Delimar Vera: I wasn't used to eating three meals a day, or even eating every day. So it was hard for me to eat a whole plate of food. And my mom was like, "Well, you don't like my food? You're gonna have to sit here and you can't get up until you eat all your food."


Emma: Delimar tried to live up to the idea of the perfect baby Luzaida had lost, but she always seemed to fall short. Luzaida tried to be patient, but everytime Delimar messed up was a reminder that she'd been raised by a criminal. So Luzaida doubled down on her parenting. It was like Luzaida was trying to discipline Delimar's old life out of her system. But the more Luzaida disciplined Delimar, the more Delimar turned away.


Delimar Vera: I thought that everything was my fault. I thought that everything that happened to me was something that I did. I always felt guilty. I always felt like I did something wrong. I always felt like nobody loved me because I did something wrong.


Emma: At the time, that felt like the most logical explanation for why everything seemed to fall apart around her. An explanation for why she felt so awful all the time. And one that kept getting reinforced every time she disappointed someone—which seemed to happen constantly. The thing that got lost in all that discipline was Delimar, and what she'd been through, what she was still going through.


Delimar Vera: I remember reading an article about somebody saying that, "Oh, she's so happy and she's a great kid. She's so smart. But this won't last for long. Someday that trauma is gonna hit her and it's gonna take a toll on her." And that's exactly what happened.


Emma: For Luzaida, the kidnapping had been the worst experience of her life. For Delimar, the kidnapping had defined her life and all of her relationships. Luzaida needed to move on; Delimar needed to work through it. One of them would have to bend for the other to get what she needed.


Delimar Vera: I remember being strong, and just one day waking up and being so sad. And it was like a self-realization moment where I was like, "That's me. It's real." I don't know if I thought it was a dream, but I woke up and things were different. And I just remember wanting to talk to somebody about it, nobody really listening to me. My relationship with my mom wasn't easy. I remember things in the beginning being great, but when things got tough, I felt like I was alone and by myself. And ultimately, that's why I decided to leave.


Emma: Delimar stopped coming home. And then she stopped going to school. And that's when the Department of Human Services caught up with her. After less than a decade together, Luzaida lost custody of the daughter she'd fought so hard to get back. And at 14 years old, Delimar moved into a group home. But there, something unexpected happened.


Emma: She found the space to figure things out on her own. Nobody was fighting over her. She didn't remind anyone of the worst experience of their life. And she wasn't letting anyone down—mostly because nobody expected anything.


Emma: She got access to programs and social services that she'd never had before, that she wouldn't have had if she'd stayed at home. She eventually got a degree, and an apartment, and a therapist, who finally made her feel like she had permission to talk about all the things she'd been through.


Delimar Vera: I was the only one that could really have my own back. I didn't want to rely or depend on anybody. I just felt like being independent was the best thing that I could do for myself.


Emma: These days, Delimar has a good job and a nice boyfriend—he's here too.


Isaiah: I'm Isaiah, the boyfriend, the lover. [laughs]


Emma: She's also reconciled with her mother, Luzaida.


Delimar Vera: We didn't really understand each other. And that's what people—people were so caught up on making a movie and telling our story, but not really focused on helping us and our relationship, which was what really mattered was getting two people back to where they should be.


Emma: She's worked hard to process her own experience of the kidnapping. She's learned that, even though she had no control over the first chapter of her story, she can control the way she tells it, and the impact it'll have over the rest of her life. So I asked her: how do you tell your story now to people you're just meeting? Like your boyfriend, Isaiah. Isaiah's been sitting next to her on the couch. Delimar smirks, and Isaiah leans forward.


Isaiah: All right, so ...


Emma: All right. Here it is. [laughs]


Isaiah: So when we first met, when me and her first met, you know, we hung out a minute, we're just meeting each other. And she just kinda tells me, like, "Yeah, like, I was kidnapped and all this stuff." And I'm just like, "Hmm, kind of sounds like a movie." So, like, initially I'm just like, "Okay, I don't know why she's making up this crazy story. Like, I just don't understand who would do that." And then I found out that it was true, and it was just like—it was a lot, you know?


Emma: How long did you wait before you told him? Or were you just like, date number one?


Isaiah: First date.


Emma: First date? [laughs]


Isaiah: That's why I said ...


Delimar Vera: Let me explain why. Let me explain why. Because I really liked him, and I feel like sometimes that might scare somebody away. I wanted to—you know, like, some people, when you tell them that you've been through something crazy like that, they're like, "Oh, well you're crazy. You went through that crazy thing, you must be crazy." So I just thought, "Let me lay it out all on a table. If he sticks around, he accepts it. If not, okay. It wasn't meant to be." And I was drunk. [laughs]


Isaiah: That's it.


Emma: Delimar and Isaiah got engaged a few months after our interview. Delimar's planning the wedding with the help of her mom. The two are closer now than they've ever been.


Emma: Crime Show is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. It's hosted by me, Emma Courtland. This episode was produced by Mitch Hansen and James Kim. Crime Show was produced by Jerome Campbell, Cat Schuknecht and Jade Abdul-Malik. Research by Julie Carly. Editing by Devon Taylor. Production oversight by Collin Campbell. Additional help from Anya Schultz and Nicole Pasulka. Theme song by So Wylie. Mixing and sound design by Daniel Ramirez. Original music by So Wylie and Dara Hirsch. Special thanks to Alex Blumberg and Rachel Strom.