The park where 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez was reported missing nearly a month ago is quiet these days.
The only indication that something isn’t right here is a growing tribute of signs, candles and messages arranged along a baseball diamond backstop near the scene of Dulce’s disappearance exactly four weeks ago today.
The display includes the now-familiar fliers seen all over town with the kindergartener’s photo, details and information about the reward being offered. That reward rose to $52,000 last week.
A handwritten note placed between the candles is addressed to Dulce. “We hope you find your way. We are praying for your safe return.”
Work to renovate the playground where Dulce was last seen appears complete. It was under construction at the time she disappeared, though no one was working on it that day.
Local investigators remain committed to bringing Dulce home, Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly said Friday.
“They’re still working around the clock with state and federal officials,” he said. “We haven’t had any new breaks as of yet, but I’m hopeful that through the diligence of the investigators that we’ll find her.”
Dulce was reported missing during an outing with her family at Bridgeton City Park on Sept. 16.
Her mom, 19-year-old Noema Alavez Perez, took her kids and her sister to the park a little after 4 p.m. after stopping for ice cream at a nearby Sunoco convenience store. Dulce chose a container of coconut water ice.
Once at the park, Dulce and her 3-year-old brother ran to a nearby playground about 30 yards from the car, while Alavez Perez and her 8-year-old sister remained in the car. The mom explained recently that she was checking a scratch-off lottery ticket and preparing to help her sister with homework when the sister said she couldn’t see the young kids at the playground.
They walked over to the playground, where Alavez Perez found her son crying. His ice cream was on the ground and when asked about his sister, he pointed to a spot near the playground where he last saw her, the mom said.
Dulce was gone and not even her water ice remained, she said.
During a 911 call she made from the park, a tearful Alavez Perez says the child may have been taken.
“We were here at the park and people said that somebody … probably somebody took her,” she tells a dispatcher.
After a brief search by the family, the police were contacted just before 5 p.m. that day. Since then, police from various agencies have repeatedly searched the park by land, water and air. Federal agents joined local investigators in the operation, speaking with residents and using their vast resources to try and locate the child.
An Amber Alert was issued Sept. 17 after a witness reported seeing a man usher the child into a vehicle at the park. While the alert suggests the man abducted the girl, investigators later described him as someone they just wish to speak with.
Police have not found that man, officials said recently, adding that the description in the alert was provided by a child.
“He is a person we want to talk to because a child of tender years described him as a possible person either involved or at the park on that day,” Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said.
The vehicle is described as a red van with tinted windows and a sliding door. The man is described as light-skinned, possibly Hispanic, roughly 5-feet 6-inches tall. He has a thin build, no facial hair and facial acne. He was wearing orange sneakers, red pants and a black shirt.
Police also released security camera images of the family’s visit to the Sunoco station just before they visited the park. Other people seen on the convenience store video have been identified and interviewed, authorities noted.
The FBI has been in touch with Dulce’s father, who is living in Mexico, and authorities have said the family is cooperating with investigators.
Fliers with Dulce’s photo and information have been placed all around the community.
She is approximately 3-feet, 5-inches tall, with brown eyes and brown hair. She was last seen wearing a yellow shirt with a picture of an elephant, black and white pants and white shoes.
Investigators concede they are unsure of Dulce whereabouts, which is why the appeal for help has gone nationwide.
Electronic highway billboards in New Jersey blast her photo and a phone number to passing motorists.
“We don’t know where Dulce is. We remain hopeful that she is alive,” Prosecutor Webb-McRae said. “I would think that because of the amount of law enforcement that has been in this area and has contributed to this investigation that it may be probable that she’s not in this area.
“So that’s why we are asking the public at large, greater than Cumberland County, greater than the state of New Jersey, across the country, to remain vigilant, and if they spot someone who appears to be Dulce not to discount it.”
In addition to multiple massive searches of the 1,100-acre city park, the investigation has extended around Bridgeton and neighboring communities, with police collecting surveillance videos from homes and businesses.
Authorities have received more than 1,000 tips and more than 300 investigators have chased down leads. Tips have been received from outside of New Jersey — some as far away as California — and those have also been investigated, police said.
Investigators have searched more than 200 locations, including abandoned buildings and “desolate areas” in the Bridgeton community and surrounding towns and have spoken with registered sex offenders in the county in order to establish their whereabouts at the time Dulce went missing.
Her family also held a community search Oct. 6 starting at the spot where she was last seen.
Even though four weeks have passed, investigators aren’t giving up.
“It’s important for the public to understand that this is still an active investigation,” Webb-McRae said Friday. She urged the public to remain vigilant. “Everybody should be concerned about a missing child.”
The case has drawn national attention and more pledges for reward money. Philanthropist Bill Pulte tweeted an offer of $30,000 “to someone who finds this beautiful girl.”
Bridgeton officials said they have reached out to Pulte’s representatives to confirm that Twitter offer, but have received no response, Bridgeton Police Chief Michael Gaimari said.
‘They think I did something to her’
During a press conference two weeks after the disappearance, Dulce’s mother held her daughter’s Elsa doll, from her favorite movie, “Frozen,” and again asked for help finding her daughter.
“If somebody knows something, please come forward and talk. We miss her a lot,” she said. “I don’t want to keep looking at photos. I want her beside us.”
Standing near the spot where Dulce was last seen, she also asked people to stop judging her as a parent and accusing her of involvement in the disappearance.
She previously expressed frustration over public criticism and said police even believed her family was somehow involved.
“The police think our family did this,” she told NJ Advance Media. “They think I did something to her. I didn’t. I love my daughter. I would never do nothing bad to her.”
Gaimari acknowledged that tough questions have to be asked of families when a child disappears. Investigators later praised the family for its cooperation in the case.
It’s clear that the family remains remains under the microscope, though. Alavez Perez said last week that police have searched her phone three or four times so far, and that it was returned each time.
Police had her car towed from the park for inspection, but it has since been returned.
Gaimari stressed that every potential lead is being investigated.
“Until we can determine what happened to the child, nobody is cleared,” he said.
Alavez Perez said she took down her Facebook page after people commented on an old photo of her smoking marijuana, something she said she no longer does.
“I’m a different person,” she said. “I don’t smoke.”
She has spoken openly about her past struggles, which included dealing with depression.
Alavez Perez said her kids live with her parents in Bridgeton, while she lives in a nearby apartment.
When she gave birth at age 14, her parents had Dulce live with them because they didn’t think their daughter was responsible enough to care for her, Alavez Perez said, adding that they love Dulce as if she is their own daughter. While she originally shared custody of Dulce with her mom, her mom now has sole custody.
Her parents have also endured abusive online comments.
“They’re saying I didn’t love my kids and I just gave my kids away to someone … and that supposedly my mom was prostituting me,” Alavez Perez said.
Jackie Rodriguez, who organized a candlelight vigil for Dulce following her disappearance and has acted as a spokesperson for the family, said last week that she is stepping back from that public role because of harassment she has received on social media over her support for Dulce’s family.
“It’s sick how people think I was doing bad by helping this family,” she said.
Making a tough situation even more difficult for the family is that Dulce’s grandparents have lost their jobs since the disappearance, Rodriguez said. Since they haven’t been able to go to work.
Investigators plead for cooperation
Days after Dulce was reported missing, Alavez Perez said her boyfriend, who is not Dulce’s father, was detained by ICE after he was interviewed about the child’s disappearance. He has since been released. Alavez Perez said she is five months pregnant with her boyfriend’s child.
The incident likely hasn’t helped efforts to encourage cooperation from undocumented immigrants living in the area.
Webb-McRae has repeatedly urged any undocumented immigrants with information to step forward, reassuring them that they have no need to fear their immigration status will be an issue. Gov. Phil Murphy has repeated that message.
Anyone with information about Dulce is asked to call the New Jersey State Police Missing Persons Unit at 609-882-2000, ext. 2554, or the Bridgeton police at 856-451-0033. Tips may also be phoned in to 1-800-CALL-FBI and select option 4, then select option 8.
Anonymous tips may be sent by text to TIP411 with “Bridgeton” in the message line.
The FBI also set up a link where people can submit photos and videos taken at the park around the time of the disappearance.
Matt Gray may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MattGraySJT. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
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