Five-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez’s disappearance dominated local and national headlines after she disappeared without a trace while at her local Southern New Jersey playground. But as the investigation heads into its fourth month, Dulce’s family and supporters say public interest in the case is waning in Bridgeton, the place most likely to yield clues.
They hope a march to City Hall Monday morning will get the attention of the Bridgeton community — especially the city’s mayor, who supporters say can galvanize the community.
“I want for people to keep helping us, sharing her photo so people know that she’s still missing,” said Dulce’s mother, Noema Alavez Perez.
From the time Dulce went missing on Sept. 16, Bridgeton Police Chief Michael Gaimari has insisted someone in the Cumberland County city had to have seen something the day Dulce disappeared.
But he feared some in the majority Latino town of more than 24,000 might be held back by immigration concerns.
Gaimari assured the public anyone with possible clues would not be questioned over their immigration status, a promise echoed by New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. A reward for information leading to Dulce’s whereabouts has grown to $75,000.
Still, Alavez Perez’s boyfriend — who is not Dulce’s father — was briefly detained by federal immigration officials after he was interviewed by investigators, which frightened the community, according to Jackie Rodriguez, a family spokeswoman.
The reservations brought on by fears of deportation, paired with the passage of time, have made it seem like Bridgeton has forgotten about Dulce, supporters of the family said.
“All the people who came for the first vigil, where are they now?” said Stacey Filoon, who said she has made regular trips from Philadelphia to look for Dulce in her hometown.
The 5-year-old’s family has frequently scoured Bridgeton’s abandoned buildings and patches of now-barren woods since Dulce’s abduction.
Filoon and a group of “core volunteers,” as they call themselves, say Bridgeton residents make a small portion of the search parties.
This was visible during another amateur search Sunday.
A group of 12 volunteers used walking sticks to move damp leaves and brush from a desolate road that stretches into a wooded area a quarter of a mile from Bridgeton City Park where Dulce was last seen.
That afternoon, Dulce wore a yellow shirt with a koala in the center and black and white pants adorned with butterflies. She was eating a coconut ice cream with a small wooden spoon.
The volunteer search party — made up of Filoon, a psychic from New York, residents from neighboring Vineland, and one person from Egg Harbor — looked for the clothes, which could have been dumped during a getaway.
“Maybe we’ll find her ice cream (cup) no one ever found,” said Alavez Perez.
One duo of friends from Vineland came with two binders. One laid out the details of the case, another how principles from astrology could help narrow search spots.
Anna Donnelly is a former Bridgeton resident who now lives in Vineland. Like Filoon, she laments what seems to her like a lack of community support, but she is not necessarily surprised.
“They don’t trust the Bridgeton Police, they don’t trust the state troopers, they don’t trust FBI,” Donnelly said.
A promise to protect the community from the very authorities they fear would not be enough to get people to share information or even get near a search, said Donnelly.
‘We don’t know what else to do’
As the search continued across Bridgeton, a C-Town Supermarket just a short drive from the park bustled with Spanish-speaking shoppers.
Marcelino D., who didn’t want to use his last name because he is in the country illegally, felt the criticisms were harsh.
It’s complicated, he said.
I went out to one of the early searches and a vigil. He’s also continued to share the Facebook posts with Dulce’s photo. He saw there was another search Sunday, but he had prior engagements, including getting his grocery shopping done for the week.
The searches he went to had some support from Bridgeton residents, he said.
“Of course, it’s not 100% of Bridgeton, but I’ve seen people from Bridgeton — at least, people that I know who help or who want to be present,” he said.
Still, concerns about deportation could be enough to keep many away, D. said.
Abelina Cardoza was also taken aback by claims of a lack of community support.
“We have done what’s possible by sharing [Dulce’s photo] on social networks,” she said as she corralled her two children and groceries in her sedan. “We don’t know what else to do. The police keep searching for her … We can’t do anything else.”
Rodriguez admits her recent appearance on the “Dr. Phil” show, coupled with social media-fueled rumors about Dulce’s mother’s involvement, may have drawn more skepticism from the community.
When interviewed, Rodriguez told Phil McGraw, host of the show, that some members of Dulce’s family were under the impression that Alavez Perez knew more about the abduction than she was letting on.
“I feel like she knows that child is OK,” Rodriguez said on the show. “She’s missing her, but she’s not freaking out. She knows she’s OK,” Rodriguez said on the show.
During the search Sunday, Rodriguez said she wasn’t “backstabbing or trying to throw [Alavez Perez] under the bus” with her comments.
“I think everybody just went crazy after that show,” Rodriguez said. “Everybody was like, ‘Oh, you know, she has something to do with it, she has something to do with it.’ The people that didn’t think she had something to do with it, now think that she knows and had something to do with it.”
Still, Rodriguez said Alavez Perez didn’t walk back her comments. She only added that Dulce’s mother could be withholding information to protect Dulce.
In an email, Gaimari said investigators and victim witness personnel from the prosecutor’s office continue to make contact with the family every week.
“The investigation is proceeding daily with our department, the prosecutor’s office, state police and the FBI,” he wrote.
Alavez Perez and other supporters said Monday’s planned march is an effort to get Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly to rally the community, a figure they say could sway public opinion and revive interest in the case.
“I’m saying that maybe if the city or the mayor could have publicly asked people to come out, I think we would have had a better turnout,” said Rodriguez.
It’s unclear what Kelly’s office could do to aid search efforts. Attempts to reach Kelly for comment were unsuccessful by the time of publication.