SOUTH BEND -- Small memorials to Delia Lerma decorate the walls of the home she bought with her husband nearly 18 years ago.Her wedding picture hangs on a wall by the front entrance, adorned with a white flower. A vase of red flowers stands on a ledge in the family room. Another picture stands in the same room, depicting the smiling, dark-haired woman with her daughter and namesake, little Delia, around 3 at the time.
Five years have passed since Delia Lerma, 33, was found stabbed to death in her van after she disappeared following a quick trip to the store.
The photos of the cheerful-looking woman who liked to cook tamales and lasagna for her family are splashed throughout the house on Bendix Drive where her husband and four children still live.
The anniversary of her slaying, Dec. 8, just passed.
Five years later though, the woman's 2007 death is still riddled with mystery.
Investigators say her husband, Lucio Lerma, is their sole person of interest in the case, though no one was ever arrested or charged in the homicide.
Lerma maintains his innocence as her family members in South Bend and Texas say they are still desperately hoping for answers.
"Every moment we remember her, especially if we don't move from this house," her husband, Lerma said during an interview in his home.
A once promising future
Born in Mexico and raised in South Texas where he met Delia, Lerma and his five children still live in the house he and Delia bought years ago as an investment in their shared future.
Sometimes struggling for a word in English, Lerma described fortuitous years in South Bend followed by the tragedy that changed everything, as his children ate dinner and made Friday night plans.
As a young couple, the two moved north from Texas because Delia had an aunt here, and they heard promises of work.
Lerma worked in local factories. The couple bought the house and a then a car as their first son Lucio, named for Lerma, was born.
Three other children followed -- Leonardo, Leroy and little Delia. After his wife's death, Lerma had a fifth child with another woman, Leonso, who is 3 years old.
Though the couple was far from their family in South Texas, for awhile, South Bend supplied all they needed -- steady work, a home and a growing family.
Then one day, Delia went out to purchase ingredients to make tamales and never returned.
Searching for answers
Back in Texas, Delia's mother and siblings are still plagued with questions.
Was it a random act of violence? Was she killed by someone she knew? Why was her life taken?
"We're always talking about it. We want answers," Delia's sister, Leticia Burgos, who lives in Weslaco, Texas, said. "We need closure."
St. Joseph County Metro Homicide detective Jim Taylor said the investigation is still open.
"By no means have we given up on it," Taylor said.
He said Lucio Lerma is the only person of interest in the case, which they do not consider cold.
"We continue to investigate as leads come forward," Taylor said.
Though Burgos kept in contact with investigators for about a year following her older sister's death, the past four years have marked a quiet period of many unknowns.
"We miss her," Burgos said. "We would like to know exactly what happened."
Burgos said her family has considered traveling to South Bend to renew interest in the case.
After Delia's death, Lucio Lerma sat for a polygraph test, one that he said police told him he failed.
He said police told him he was their No. 1 person of interest.
"I'm not mad, but I don't know why they said that," Lucio Lerma said.
He said that, like the rest of the family, he hopes to one day learn what happened to his wife.
Under a cloud of suspicion from police, Lerma buried his wife and continued on with his life, raising his children as a single father.
But the once-promising life he started in South Bend with his wife was shattered.
Lerma was fired from his factory job after missing too many days of work.
"Because my kids, you know. I gotta take care of them first," he said.
The family survived on unemployment for awhile, but eventually he was in danger of defaulting on a $50,000 loan he and Delia took out before she died.
He made the payments easily before he was fired.
Though he said the couple purchased insurance on the loan in the event of a spouse's death, Lerma said the bank wouldn't free him from the loan without a police report, which he said investigators would not release to him.
He said he hired a lawyer in an attempt to get the report so as not to dip into savings he previously put aside for his children but was unsuccessful in obtaining the report.
On the hook for the loan, he used the family's life savings, which included a settlement from a car accident, to pay it off.
Lerma said he had hoped to use that money to help his children pursue education after high school.
Now, the family is just scraping by.
Lerma works from home on a freelance basis, painting cars for dealers in the area.
The job allows him to be home with his children, ages ranging from 3 to 17, but the pay doesn't cover their needs.
Their water is often shut off.
"I'm just working to buy clothes for them," Lerma said. "Once in awhile I buy shoes for them. They have to take care of those shoes."
The life is far from the one that seemed so promising when they moved from Texas.
Lasagna and tamales
But Lerma said he tries to recreate the life the family had with Delia, though he admits the often disheveled house is never as clean or whole as when his wife was alive.
The family used to enjoy meals together, but now it is less frequent. Burgos said Delia, who loved to cook, prized the days when the whole family ate together.
"Sometimes I go buy pizza. It's really hard to cook every day," Lerma said, though he tries to cook sometimes.
Lerma and his son sometimes talk about trying to duplicate the mother's cooking.
"My oldest son, he say, 'Let's go make tamales. You helped mom make the beans and chicken. We just need to make corn flour and we can start doing it,'" Lerma said.
Other times, they have talked about trying to make her lasagna, making ambitious plans to cook like Delia.
They haven't yet, he said, but maybe one day, they will be able to make tamales like Delia did.
Staff writer Madeline Buckley: