(CNN) -

Dave Lacey stood motionless in his living room, his eyes tracing the glass from his shattered porch door to the empty shelf that once held his XBox. In the home invasion, the burglars focused on the high priced items in his house -- electronics and jewelry. But Dave barely paused as he cataloged them for the police. The one item he stressed in his police report was his wife's Canon camera.

"It just didn't seem fair," he recalls, "because after all that we went through, to lose those, it was like a punch in the gut."

By "those" he means the pictures on the camera's memory card that he had not yet backed up on a computer. The card held the last pictures of him and his wife, Erica Werdel. They were the pictures from her funeral.

"Even though those are hard pictures to see, they're still something I want captured and want to remember," says Dave.

Love, marriage and death

When Dave met Erica, it wasn't like being struck by lightning or seeing fireworks. That sort of schmaltz didn't have a place in their time together, a pragmatic theme that would weave through their relationship. They knew each other casually at first, through work. Dave couldn't help but notice the dark-eyed brunette who could make anyone laugh. He also noticed the petite woman was, unexpectedly, a great basketball player. And he couldn't help but pause when she spoke, her eyes kind and generous.

As is the case with most relationships, the timing is everything. It would take an entire year before they started dating.

Erica, Dave remembers, was someone who made everyone around her better. "She's my best friend. She made me a better person. She made me a better man. She demanded that I give her my best -- that she was worth it. And she was right."

Eventually, the couple got engaged. Erica's family is sizable so their wedding, they agreed, had to have at least 200 people. Planning an event of that size while also working on their dual careers was chaotic and exhausting.

In the weeks leading up to their wedding, Erica brushed off what she thought was a mild illness. But the cold didn't seem to go away. At first, her doctor thought she might have lupus, an autoimmune disorder. The doctor suggested she get a full body CT scan.

The scan showed a softball-sized tumor in her chest, pushing on her heart. A second tumor was behind her diaphragm. The diagnosis came just days before their wedding: large B-cell non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. Erica was 28 years old, stricken with a rare form of lymphoma affecting young women.

The cancer was so aggressive that Erica went through her first round of chemotherapy a few days after the initial diagnosis. The doctors urged the couple to cancel the wedding because of the risk of infection from exposure to the guests. Dave shakes his head and smiles as he remembers Erica's reaction. "She wasn't going to let cancer get in the way of that," he says. "She really put everyone else in front of herself. She never sat back and said 'woe is me.' She never gave up."

At first glance, you miss the skin-colored bandage around the bride's arm in the wedding photos. Underneath the bandage is a temporary portacath for Erica's chemotherapy. The bandage irritated the bride, but the doctors insisted she would have to wear it to attend her wedding. Erica grudgingly obliged, ordering the wedding photographer to crop it out or obscure it whenever possible. She didn't want to look back on the beginning of her life with her husband and see the disease.

The next year would be one of progress and hope fighting the disease. The second year would be one of struggle. The cancer mutated, became immune to treatment and grew back rapidly. It spread through Erica's blood and bone marrow, ravaging her body. Erica never stopped fighting, even when she knew the cancer would end her life. She became an amateur photographer, taking pictures of her dogs and chronicling the simple moments in life she treasured. She never stopped demanding her young husband keep living, both with her and beyond her life.

Erica didn't want her family to wallow or pity her at a dour wake. She asked her husband to throw a party to celebrate her 30 years of life. She wanted to be defined by the optimistic life she lived, not the horror of the cancer that claimed her. She died on December 7, 2011.

"It was near Christmas," recalls Dave. "The whole house was decorated to the nines. We rented a burger truck, and we took pictures of everything."

The 300 pictures on Erica's camera chronicled her funeral, her party at their house and her loved ones as they said goodbye. Dave tried to keep the promise he made to Erica, to celebrate her life with their guests. After he buried his wife, Dave put the Canon camera away, neglecting to download the pictures. He would do that later, he thought, after time soothed the gut-wrenching and overwhelming grief.

A year later, burglars raided his home, stealing the last images he had of his wife's life and the day he said farewell.

A detective's hunch

Santa Ana robbery detectives Paul McClaskey and Jerry Verdugo estimate that 5 percent of their cases are resolved with the stolen items be returned to their owners.

McClaskey was about to get one of the coveted 5 percent resolutions after a crime victim phoned the police department.

The "Find my iPhone" app on a victim's phone had just pinged, tracing his stolen desktop computer to a Santa Ana apartment. When the detectives arrived at that apartment, they found David Aguilar with the stolen computer. Santa Ana police say Aguilar was on probation for residential burglary.

Aguilar and his girlfriend, Monica Molina, eventually both pleaded guilty to a series of home burglaries. Aguilar was sentenced to 120 days in jail and three years of probation. Molina was sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years of probation.

As McClaskey began searching their apartment, he saw "pawn slips in a stack in his living room," he says. McClaskey and Verdugo went to the pawn shop and tracked down some two dozen items believed to have been pawned by their suspect.

The officers began to input the serial numbers of the recovered electronics, many of them cameras and tablets, into a national database where police departments report victims' stolen items. None of them came back as stolen, which isn't unusual because most victims don't keep track of their serial numbers.