As the search for 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez of New Jersey continues Thursday into an 11th day, multiple unanswered questions surrounding her disappearance continue to puzzle investigators.
Dulce was last recorded on surveillance video buying ice cream at a convenience store on the afternoon of Sept. 16 with her 3-year-old brother, 8-year-old relative and mother, Noema Alavez Perez, who later took the kids to Bridgeton City Park.
Alavez Perez stayed in the car with the 8-year-old as the younger children went to a nearby play area in the 1,000-acre park, she told police. Around 4:20 p.m., Dulce’s younger brother came back to the car crying without his older sister, authorities said.
Alavez Perez searched for the girl, initially thinking she may have been hiding, and then called her brother to come to the park and help look for Dulce, authorities said. She contacted police around 5 p.m., touching off a massive search effort that has now spilled into a second week.
But as each day passes, the mystery deepens and several key questions remain unanswered.
- Who is the mysterious man with a red van being sought as a suspect? A witness told police a man led Dulce to a red van with a sliding door. He is described as a clean-shaven, Hispanic, with a thin build and facial acne. Authorities said he is about 5-feet-8-inches tall. He was wearing orange sneakers, red pants and a black shirt, authorities said.
- Who identified the suspect and described the van? Authorities have not said much about the witness who provided the description, only revealing that it came about after interviewing and re-interviewing people at the park that afternoon. There was a group playing basketball at a nearby court at the park, but on the first day of the search, police said none of them saw anything that would help.
- Why did it take more than 24 hours for an Amber Alert to be issued? After Noema Alavez Perez called police at 5 p.m. on Sept. 16, authorities treated Dulce’s disappearance as a missing child case with an intense search of the 1,000-acre Bridgeton City Park. The search included helicopters, infrared cameras and divers in the waterways around the park. One waterway was drained. The Amber Alert issued around 10 p.m. the following day, Sept. 17, after police say they received the information from the witness about a man leading Dulce to a red van.
- Why was Alavez Perez’s boyfriend picked up by ICE and then released? Alavez Perez’s boyfriend, who is not the father of Dulce, was interviewed by investigators and then taken to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. Edgar Martinez-Santiago, who Dulce’s mother said is a Mexican citizen living in the U.S. illegally, was later released. Alavez Parez said he doesn’t speak English and she doesn’t know why he was detained. ICE officials have not commented other than to confirm he was released and Martinez-Santiago “is part of ongoing investigation by local, state and federal law enforcement partners.”
- Why are authorities contacting Dulce’s father, who is in Mexico? The FBI contacted Dulce’s father, Edgar Perez, in Mexico earlier this week to discuss the ongoing search, though the reason for that call has not been disclosed.
- Was there any other surveillance video that captured Dulce? The only video surveillance provided by authorities shows Dulce at a Sunoco convenience store buying ice cream on Sept. 16 with her 3-year-old brother, 8-year-old relative and mother shortly before she disappeared. Authorities have asked residents to scour home security footage for any additional images of the girl or the red van described by the witness. Video that aired on NBC’s affiliate in Philadelphia earlier this week showing a red SUV was investigated and deemed unrelated to the search, authorities said.
- What are the next steps in the search? Investigators said they are pursuing hundreds of tips submitted to the FBI and remain hopeful that Dulce will be found safe. Bridgeton police, the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office, State Police and the FBI are involved in the search.
- How can you help? You can speak with an FBI agent by calling 1-800-CALL-FBI. Choose option 4, then option 8. Bridgeton police can be reached at 856-451-0033. Tips may also be emailed to the police at email@example.com. The Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office has a secure quick tip submissions line. Tips may not be received until the following day, however, so if you want someone to receive the information right away you should call 856-453-0486 x11100. State Police can be reached at 609-882-2000, ext. 2554. Anyone with photos or videos can upload them to the FBI at this online form. A $35,000 reward has been offered in the case.
Anthony G. Attrino may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TonyAttrino. Find NJ.com on Facebook.