An unmistakable set of dimples was what first caught Luzaida Cuevas’ attention.
The 31-year-old was at the birthday party of a friend’s daughter, when she was drawn to a dark-haired little girl who looked remarkably familiar.
At first, she likely thought she’d seen a ghost. And in a way, she had.
As Luz watched her play, she became increasingly sure she knew this girl who went by the name Aaliyah. Except she wasn’t Aaliyah. Her name – Luz believed – was Delimar Vera.
Delimar was her daughter, and she had died at just 10 days old.
It had been a house fire.
On the evening of December 15, 1997, a fire broke out on the second storey of their family home in Philadelphia. Delimar had been sleeping. When Luz ran into her newborn’s bedroom – she was nowhere to be found. The cot was empty and the window open. She stood there dumbfounded, sustaining burns on her face. It was a scene she never forgot.
Luz’s two other children survived, but firemen and medical examiners insisted Delimar had been so burned by the fire that her body left no remains. Years later, Luz would say she never believed them.
The fire, police believed, was the result of an overheated extension cord connected to the heater. Foul play was never seriously considered.
That was until the day at the birthday party.
Luz called the little girl over, who looked like her siblings and wore an expression Luz recognised as her own.
Aaliyah had bubblegum stuck in her hair, and Luz offered to fix it, remembering a crime show she’d watched where hair had been collected as a DNA sample. She chopped off five strands and carefully placed them in a napkin.
The test would prove her instinct was right. The five-year-old girl Luz had encountered at a birthday party was indeed her daughter. But, how? Where had she been? And, mostly importantly, who had taken her?
The day before the fire in December 1997, a distant cousin of Luz’s partner, Carolyn Correa, had visited the family home. The next day she returned, claiming she had left her purse upstairs.
Not long after Carolyn left the house, the fire erupted, and Luz discovered her baby missing.
“I suspected Carolyn from the way she disappeared from our lives after the fire,” Luz later said. But with nothing more than a gut instinct, she did not feel she could go to the police.