PHILADELPHIA – Carolyn Correa, the Willingboro, N.J., woman accused of snatching a 10-day-old girl six years ago and raising her as her own, was in police custody Tuesday night. At the same time, the child’s mother was getting ready to bring her home to Philadelphia.

And the little girl at the center of it all, Delimar Vera, was in the custody of New Jersey’s Division of Youth and Family Services Tuesday night. Department spokesman Andy Williams said it would be up to a Family Court judge to determine where she would live, and no timetable had been immediately set for the courts to hear the case.

Correa, 41, accompanied by her attorney, surrendered to Philadelphia police shortly after 4:15 p.m. at the Special Victims Unit on the campus of Episcopal Hospital.

Correa is accused of taking Delimar Vera from the home of Luzaida Cuevas in the Feltonville, Pa., on Dec. 15, 1997, then setting fire to a bedroom to cover up the kidnapping. After the fire was extinguished and the baby could not be found, authorities concluded that her body had been consumed by the flames.

Investigators said Tuesday that Correa went to authorities in New Jersey on Jan. 6, 1998, reporting that she gave birth at home on Dec. 12, 1997, in Willingboro.

Cuevas, 31, said Tuesday that she was pleased Correa had been arrested.

“If she was so evil then, and started a fire, she could do that now with the kids inside,” Cuevas said.

Cuevas said she had never seen Correa until the day of the fire. Correa told her that she had also just had a baby, Cuevas said.

Cuevas, who speaks halting English and lives with her three sons, Wilfredo, 11, Israel, 10, and Samuel, 4, on Amber Street in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia, said she recognized the girl as her daughter at a child’s birthday party on Jan. 24.

The party was held by Evelyn Vera, a sister of Delimar’s father, Pedro Vera.

Cuevas said that when she spotted the child, she immediately became suspicious. She said her concern was heightened when Correa called the girl away.

Her concerns grew further when Evelyn Vera – who was holding the party for her granddaughter – brought Delimar over to her and said: “Isn’t Carol’s daughter beautiful? She’s not your baby.”

Cuevas said she followed the girl upstairs, where the children were playing, and pretended that the girl had gum in her hair so she could pull some hairs out for DNA testing.

She then took her suspicions to State Rep. Angel Cruz, D-Philadelphia, who talked to authorities about investigating the case.

Subsequent DNA testing confirmed the girl was Cuevas’ daughter.

Cruz said Tuesday that efforts were under way to reunite mother and child as soon as possible.

“We’re still trying to work it out, trying to find out if we can make this happen tonight,” Cruz said Tuesday night. “If not, first thing tomorrow morning.”

In a brief statement Tuesday evening outside the special victims unit, Capt. John Darby said Correa surrendered to police in the company of her attorney, Jeff Zucker.

“She was taken into custody by members of the special victims unit at our headquarters here,” said Darby, who then listed the 15 charges lodged against her. “We are pleased that this phase of a complex, protracted and emotionally charged investigation has been completed with the subject’s arrest in this short time.”

Evelyn Vera said that Correa was related to the extended Vera family by marriage and had been raised as a cousin. She recalled that on the day the baby was thought to have died in the fire, “Carol was there. She was hugging my brother and giving him support. How could she do that, when she was doing all this?”

Evelyn Vera said she had not been surprised when Correa subsequently turned up with a baby because she believed that Correa was pregnant around that time.

Evelyn Vera said that Correa, who has three older children – a boy about 10, a teenage girl, and a 22-year-old son – spoiled Delimar, or, as she was known, Aliyah.

“She treated that little girl better than her three other kids,” Evelyn Vera said. “She had her in private school. She took her for modeling. She did everything for her.”

Delimar was always well dressed and indulged by all the members of the extended Vera family, Evelyn Vera said.

About a month ago, Evelyn Vera said, detectives came to her home on the 3000 block of F Street in Philadelphia looking for Correa. Vera then called Correa in Willingboro and said she needed to call Philadelphia police.

“She was surprised,” Evelyn Vera said. “Like, “Why? I haven’t done anything.”‘

Correa, who lives in Willingboro with her mother, has faced arson charges before.

In 1996, she was arrested and charged with starting a fire at the Hamilton, N.J., medical office where she worked as a billing clerk.

She had been stealing checks from the business and cashing them in Philadelphia, Hamilton Police Lt. James Kostoplis said.

When she realized her boss had caught on to her, Correa tried to destroy evidence by setting fire to the office the morning of Nov. 20, 1996, Kostoplis said.

Because there were people in the building when the blaze was set, Correa was charged with aggravated arson in addition to theft and fraud. She struck a deal whereby she pleaded guilty to third-degree arson in exchange for five years’ probation and community service.

Hamilton police are taking another look at the crime to see if others were involved and are assisting Philadelphia police with their investigation, Kostoplis said.

Olga Caban, a friend of Correa’s mother’s, said in an interview Tuesday that she had immediate suspicions of foul play when introduced to Correa’s baby six years ago. The biggest red flag, she said, was the fact that Correa had shown no signs of pregnancy.

It was obvious as the girl grew that she was not blood-related, Caban said. “She looked different,” she said. “She was very beautiful – gorgeous – but not part of that family.”

The bizarre kidnapping case has attracted international attention. Cuevas spent much of Tuesday fielding press interview after press interview.

Cruz, the state representative who played a key role in getting authorities to reopen the case, said Cuevas had already gotten two movie offers.

The mother said she was concerned about Delimar’s adjustment to the new situation.

“I worry she’s going to feel like a stranger. I worry she’s going to feel I stole her away from Carol instead of Carol stealing her away from me,” she said.

Cuevas said she wants to have a homecoming party.

“I want to buy Barbies and clothes for her.

“I know that it will be hard for her,” Cuevas said. “She sees for all these years that Carol is her mother. But I have patience. I know someday soon she’ll call me mother.”

Not everybody was so sanguine about Delimar’s adjustment. Her aunt Evelyn Vera predicted problems for the 6-year-old.

“She’s going to suffer more than everybody else,” she said.

(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Joel Bewley, Frederick Cusick and Troy Graham contributed to this report.)

(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-03-02-04 2311EST

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