Wednesday will mark one year since 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez went missing from Bridgeton City Park. The search and law enforcement investigation continues as many in her South Jersey community remain hopeful that Dulce is found alive and unharmed.
“In the absence of evidence that tells us that Dulce is no longer with us, we hold out hope that she remains alive,” said Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae. “We owe it to her family and her community to keep looking for Dulce.”
The prosecutor’s office has been working in partnership with state and federal authorities to locate the girl, who is now 6 years old. Webb-McRae says tips continue to be submitted.
“Over the summer, during times of COVID, we’ve received tips,” she added. “It’s caused us to go out of state and follow leads.”
Still, the case has made an impression on the longtime prosecutor, who is a mother and grandmother. She also points out many of the investigators on the case have children as well.
“This hits home to a community,” Webb-McRae said. “This [case] will never be closed; this will always be something that we’re working on and I’m encouraged by the fact that people still care and are still trying to help us find Dulce.”
Dulce was last seen on the afternoon of Sept. 16, 2019, while playing with her 3-year-old brother at Bridgeton City Park behind the high school. She was wearing a yellow shirt with a koala on the front, black and white pants with butterflies and flowers, and white dress sandals. While the children played, her mother, Noema Alavez Perez, says she was in her car helping an 8-year-old relative with her homework.
Law enforcement said she was likely abducted from the park, and her disappearance set off multiple searches as the case drew national attention, as well as social media attacks on Dulce’s mother.
Seeking a higher authority
It’s been a tough year for matriarch Norma Alavez, Dulce’s grandmother, who maintains hope that her granddaughter is alive and whoever took her will be brought to justice.
At first, said Alavez, the thought that her granddaughter could be in harm’s way made her consider ending her life.
“I didn’t want to live at first, I only wanted to disappear,” she said. “But I started to turn to God and say, ‘Please God give me strength because I can’t go on alone.’”
Always religious, Alavez only planted herself more firmly in her beliefs — going to church, constantly praying — so she could put on a brave face for her grandson and her daughter, Dulce’s mother.
The public scrutiny made it hard for the family. Unsubstantiated rumors about the family’s involvement — included unfounded allegations that Alavez Perez sold her daughter — spread like wildfire in online groups dedicated to looking for Dulce. It caused Alavez Perez to take a back seat at press conferences. Critics who wanted a wailing mother in front of cameras took her stepping back as some sort of proof that she didn’t care for Dulce.
It’s a tough place to be in, said Alavez.
“Our family can’t find her on our own,” she said. “We need everyone’s help so that we can find her. We owe those people who are helping us, sharing her photo so we can find her.”
At the same time, some of those who say they are helping have only added to the family’s trauma.
The psychics the case has drawn have been the most hurtful, said Alavez.
She recalled one psychic, who claimed with certainty that Dulce was buried behind a local school in Bridgeton.
Some 200 people gathered to look for the buried remains of a child. Against her best judgment, Alavez joined the crowd hoping the psychic was wrong.
“We didn’t find anything, but what she said made me so unwell,” she said.
For now, she said the family is choosing to place its faith in a higher power and in law enforcement.
“I recently talked to two officers who said, ‘Yes, it’s going to be a year since Dulce’s disappearance, but they’re not going to stop until they find who took her.’”
A community remembers
A community event on Sunday to mark the one-year anniversary of Dulce’s disappearance was organized by the woman who acted as the family spokesperson in the early days of the case.
Some people painted rocks to place at the base of a tree dedicated to Dulce and wrote letters to the missing girl.
“When she comes back, we can just hand them to her and she could read all of the letters,” said Jackie Rodriguez, who hopes that the investigation is going well and that she will see a message on her phone one day that Dulce has been found alive.
“I want to believe and I trust the FBI that they’re saying that they have hope she’s alive,” Rodriguez said. “Every day, I wake up and I’m like ‘I want to see that she is alive;’ I want to see that if that’s really true.”
Rodriguez said that she stepped back from being the family’s spokesperson in March after receiving “cryptic” letters from Ohio that were “too close to home.” Rodriguez also pushed Noema Alavez Perez to be more public about Dulce’s disappearance. Since then, she and the family have not talked much.
“She’s hiding and you shouldn’t be hiding,” Rodriguez said, “You should do whatever you need to do for your child.”
Rodriguez said she continues to raise awareness of Dulce’s disappearance out of obligation to finish something she began.
“I don’t like to start something and not finish and Dulce deserves to be heard,” she said. “Dulce’s name deserves to be out there. She’s 6 years old.”
Bridgeton Mayor Albert Kelly, who attended Sunday’s event, said he is encouraged that tips continue to come in to law enforcement.
“I know that our local and county, state and national organizations are searching,” Kelly said.
In the meantime, Kelly said police have stepped up patrols in the area and the city is working to add security cameras to the park.
“It just hurts my heart for this to have happened,” he said.
The investigation continues
In discussing the case with NJ.com, FBI special agent Daniel Garrabrant said that Dulce’s abduction was likely a crime of opportunity.
“The person’s intent might not have been to take a kid,” he said. “It could have been maybe to watch children because that’s what they liked, and the opportunity presented itself and they did what they did.”
Cumberland County Prosecutor Webb-McRae said her focus is on who is responsible, while not limiting herself to a single theory.
“As a prosecutor, we have to keep every avenue or theory open until we find out who is responsible,” she said. “Any scenario that bears fruit based on leads that we get or theories that we develop has to be pursued to its natural conclusion.”
Webb-McRae and Kelly are pleading for tips and reminding those in Bridgeton’s predominantly Hispanic community that they are not worried about immigration status — they only want information on where Dulce is.
“Somebody knows something,” Kelly said. “I need them to come forward.”
The reward for information leading to Dulce’s whereabouts is now at $75,000. Those with information can call 800-CALL-FBI (225-5324), or submit information to the FBI’s website or text TIP411 (847411) with “Bridgeton” in the message.
WHYY’s Ximena Conde contributed reporting.
If you or someone you know is thinking of harming themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The crisis center provides free and confidential emotional support 24 hours a day, seven days a week to civilians and veterans. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Or text 741-741.