Trinity Mount Ministries

Sunday, November 17, 2019

This N.J. girl vanished without a trace. Two months later, cops say they haven’t given up hope.

Dulce Maria Alavez photo
Dulce Maria Alavez was reported missing from a Bridgeton park on Sept. 16.

That question has consumed a South Jersey community since September, when 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez was reported missing from a Bridgeton park during a family outing.
Experts say cases like this one are rare, but caution that it could take months or even years to get answers.
Nov. 16 will mark two months since Dulce disappeared and investigators vow they won’t stop searching for the kindergartner whose smiling face has appeared around the internet, on highway billboards in North Jersey and fliers distributed throughout the Cumberland County area.

‘Probably somebody took her’

Dulce’s mom, Noema Alavez Perez, took her kids to Bridgeton City Park a little after 4 p.m. Sept. 16.
Alavez Perez, 19, said she remained in the car with her 8-year-old sister to do homework while Dulce and her 3-year-old brother ran to the nearby playground.
When the mom and sister couldn’t see the young kids at the playground, located about 30 yards away, they walked over to investigate and found the 3-year-old in tears. Dulce was nowhere to be found.
In a 911 call she placed from the park that day, Alavez Perez says the child may have been abducted. “We were here at the park and people said that somebody … probably somebody took her,” she tells a dispatcher.
Her disappearance sparked multiple searches in the sprawling park and surrounding communities. An Amber Alert was issued and the FBI soon joined local and state police in the effort to locate the child. A reward for information in the case stands at $52,000.
The area near the playground became the scene of press conferences and vigils as the community rallied to find Dulce. A makeshift shrine was erected along a baseball field backstop with photos, candles and posters pleading for her return.
Dulce’s family members are desperate for answers.
“We’re still worried because we don’t know nothing about Dulce still,” Alavez Perez said this week. “We’re trying to get more help. We just want to find her as soon as possible.”
The mom has a message for her daughter. “Our family misses her and we’re going to find her,” she said.
Dulce’s family plans a vigil this Saturday to mark two months since the disappearance.

Dulce Maria Alavez reward poster
Dulce Maria Alavez was reported missing on Sept. 16.

‘We don’t give up hope’

This isn’t a cold case, Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said.
“It’s still an active investigation,” she said Tuesday. “We’re reviewing everything and pursuing all leads. We’re encouraging the public to still send in any information.”
She praised investigators working the case.
“Their stamina has not abated in any way. They’re still pursuing it as vigorously as they did on day one.”
Officers have scoured acres of parkland, woods, waterways and vacant buildings around Bridgeton, and have checked on the whereabouts of registered sex offenders living throughout South Jersey.
There are no security cameras located in the playground area, though police have harvested videos from businesses, schools, vehicles and private properties around Bridgeton as part of the search.
“We don’t give up hope,” said Robert Lowery, vice president overseeing the missing children division with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. “We’ve seen cases where the circumstances were dire and we’ve seen the children come back home safe after long periods of time, and we’re hopeful this will be the case with Dulce.”
The center was involved with the case from the beginning, he said, offering its resources and sending representatives to assist on the ground in Bridgeton.
The investigation will continue “no matter how long it takes,” Lowery stressed.
The Amber Alert was issued Sept. 17 after a witness, later described as a child, reported seeing a man ushering 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.
The man is described as light-skinned, possibly Hispanic, roughly 5 feet 6 inches tall with a thin build, no facial hair and facial acne. He was wearing orange sneakers, red pants and a black shirt. The vehicle is described as a red van with tinted windows and a sliding door.
Investigators later released a sketch of a man they want to interview. They didn’t call him a suspect or a person of interest, but a potential witness. He was reported to be at the park with one or two children under the age of 5 around the time Dulce went missing.
He is described as Hispanic, about 5 feet 7 inches tall, with a slender build and about 30 to 35 years old. He wore a white T-shirt, blue jeans and a white baseball-style cap, authorities said.
Investigators have refused to speculate on whether Dulce was abducted by a stranger or a relative, though they have noted that her family has remained cooperative. Dulce’s mother confirmed that police have checked her cellphone several times.

Search for Dulce Alavez in Bridgeton New Jersey
Phil McAuliffe For The Times of Trenton
Dulce Maria Alavez's mother Noema Alavez Perez and her 3-year-old son Manuel at the Bridgeton City Park on Sunday morning, Oct 27, 2019 for the latest search for Dulce, who was abducted from park on Sept. 16, 2019.

‘Needle in a haystack’

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children assisted law enforcement in more than 25,000 missing children cases last year. Of those, 92 percent were “endangered” runaways, 4 percent were family abductions and less than 1 percent were non-family abductions. The remaining cases were classified as critically missing young adults, ages 18 to 20, and “lost, injured or otherwise missing” kids.
Lowery estimates there are 30 to 40 stranger abduction cases a year nationwide.
Cases like Dulce’s are unusual, he acknowledged.
“The circumstances are rare, but unfortunately it does happen from time to time,” he said. “These are proverbial needle-in-a-haystack types of cases when law enforcement is contacted.”
Lowery noted that these investigations can be lengthy.
“There are cases that do take months and even years. Our hope is to find her any day now,” he said. “We can tell you that today we are doing a much better job in total of finding children than ever before in our history.”
Technology has been the game-changer in bringing kids home, he said.
Social media allows investigators to rapidly share photos of missing kids and distribute Amber Alerts. Cellphones allow parents to quickly find their kids before the police are even contacted. Cameras on street corners and in our smartphones help act as a deterrent to criminal behavior.
When the national center launched in 1984, 60-65 percent of missing kids were returned home. Today, that figure is 98-99 percent, Lowery said.

Authorities search Bridgeton City Park for missing 5-year-old  girl, Sept. 17, 2019
Joe Warner | For NJ Advance Media
Authorities in Bridgeton City Park during one of the several searches for the missing girl.

‘They have to be relentless’

Investigators won’t let up when it comes to a case like this, said Joseph A. Pollini, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He retired as a lieutenant commander from the New York City Police Department after 33 years and investigated more than 400 kidnapping cases.
“The main thing with the police department is they have to be relentless,” Pollini said. “All cases are solvable as long as you put in the manpower to do it.”
Since this involves a missing child, “they’re not going to take that lightly,” he observed.
Officers do feel an extra drive to crack this case, Bridgeton Police Chief Michael Gaimari said.
“Cops are humans,” he said. “We all have kids. We can sympathize with how we would feel if it happened to one of our family members.”
As for what they tell families in these kinds of cases, they try to be as reassuring as possible.
“We tell them there’s always hope that the child will be found alive and not to lose that hope,” Gaimari said. “We’re optimistic that we’re going to find the child alive.”
The case remains his department’s biggest priority, he said.
“It’s still on the top burner and it will remain on that top burner until we develop that information crucial to the case.”
When the search for Dulce began, area residents saw police helicopters scanning the landscape, teams of officers on foot and FBI officials handing out information and interviewing park visitors.
Two months later, the public may not see visible signs of an investigation, but plenty is still going on behind the scenes, Lowery said.
“We are still getting information and tips and I think most everyone wants to help,” he said. “Typically in cases like this, someone has a piece of information that can unlock this mystery.”
Officials have urged residents to think about anyone they know who shows sudden behavioral changes — such as leaving town unexpectedly, changing their appearance, discarding a vehicle or clothing, or increased alcohol or drug use — that could indicate involvement.
“They may display anxiety, nervousness or irritability," Webb-McRae said in September. “They may withdraw from their normal activities.”
If Dulce was abducted by a stranger, it could be someone who is a regular at the park, knows the area and isn’t viewed as a suspicious character, Lowery suggested.
“Someone you may have known that you wouldn’t think would do something like this,” he said. “You never know what someone’s thinking or what’s in their heart.”
When it comes to cooperation from witnesses, authorities have repeatedly tried to assure undocumented immigrants who may know something about Dulce’s disappearance that investigators are not interested in anyone’s immigration status.
Alavez Perez reported in September that her boyfriend, who is not the child’s father, was briefly detained by immigration officials after he was questioned about Dulce. That episode probably didn’t encourage cooperation.
Gaimari said his department is planning additional outreach efforts in the community.
“We still believe there are people out there that have information that would be critical to the investigation,” he said,
As for the reward being offered, it’s available to anyone, including undocumented immigrants, Gaimari confirmed.
While experts often speak about the importance of the first hours in an investigation, witnesses sometimes wait to speak up, Pollini said.
“Lots of times when a case is new, people are reluctant to come forward out of fear of retaliation,” he said, adding that, with time, they may feel more confident. “Sometimes people feel time works against them and sometimes it works to their advantage.”
Dulce’s mother has repeatedly asked the public for help, while fending off criticism of her parenting and accusations that she was possibly involved in the disappearance.
Authorities acknowledged that they have to look at family members as possible suspects when investigating a missing persons case, but have described Dulce’s family as cooperative. Investigators have also been in touch with Dulce’s father, who lives in Mexico.
Speaking at an October press conference, Gaimari said no one is cleared as a suspect until Dulce is located
Police will always investigate family members in cases like these, Pollini said, because they have to consider all options.
“It’s virtually impossible to discount anybody until the case is solved,” he said.

Dulce Alavez press conference
Tim Hawk | NJ Advance Media for
Camila Alavez Perez, 8, the aunt of Dulce Marie Alavez, holds a sign during a press conference at Bridgeton City Park on Wednesday, Oct. 23, 2019.

‘I don’t know what else to do’

Jackie Rodriguez, who has served as a spokeswoman for Dulce’s family, describe them as anxious and depressed as the days pass with no news.
Dulce’s grandmother, Norma Perez Alavez, has custody of her daughter’s two kids and Alavez Perez lives in an apartment near her parents. She is expecting her third child.
“They’re still hurting. They’re still worried about their little girl,” Rodriguez said.
She recalled asking Dulce’s grandmother how she was doing.
“I can’t tell you how I feel,” she answered. “I am not doing good because I don’t have my baby Dulce Maria here. I don’t know what else to do. I don’t know where else to go. I don’t have the funds to hire anybody to help us.”
Rodriguez has tried to assure her that help is available.
The Klaas Kids Foundation, which provides search and rescue services in missing children cases, has pledged to assist the family, Rodriguez said.
The foundation was formed by the family of Polly Hannah Klaas, a California 12-year-old who was kidnapped from a slumber party and found murdered in 1993.
Rodriguez has led community searches for Dulce and door-to-door flier distributions.
She wants to keep the flier distribution going because of something she learned from the last effort. Many people in the area, including those who don’t watch the news and aren’t on social media, weren’t even aware that a child in their community was missing, she said.
She has also launched Operation Dulce, which is an effort to recruit additional volunteers to help lead the project. Learn more about that by going to the Facebook group Rodriguez launched to share information about Dulce.
Rodriguez hopes the community will remain positive.
“Never give up,” she said. “It can take time. It can take years to find someone, but let’s just keep the hope to find her.”
The vigil this Saturday, Nov. 16, will start at 5 p.m. outside of a home at 1740 South Burlington Road in Upper Deerfield Township.
Dulce 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.
Anyone with information 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.

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