‘We still have the faith’: 2 months after Dulce vanished, community still searching for answers

A vigil for missing 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez is held outside a home in Bridgeton, N.J. on Saturday, November 16, 2019. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

A vigil for missing 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez is held outside a home in Bridgeton, N.J. on Saturday, November 16, 2019. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Two months to the day after 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez disappeared without a trace from a Bridgeton, New Jersey, park, roughly 30 people gathered in the backyard of a nearby home to keep her in the community’s thoughts.

At the vigil, clutching rosaries and holding white candles, family and friends listened to the singing of prayers like “Coronilla a la Divina Misericordia” — “The Crown of the Divine Mercy.”

Dulce’s family — her mother, Noema Alavez Perez, her grandmother Norma Perez Alavez, her 3-year-old brother Manuel, and Noema’s 8-year-old sister, Camila — made their first appearance before the media in several weeks, holding posters with pleas for help and photos of the smiling child.

Camila wrote on her poster that she hopes Dulce can be home for Christmas.

Camila Alavez Perez arrives for a vigil for her missing 5-year-old niece, Dulce Maria Alavez in Bridgeton, N.J. on Saturday, November 16, 2019. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Law enforcement officials — including Bridgeton Police, New Jersey State Police, the FBI, and the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office —  say they are working daily on the investigation. They’re still in search of key information that would help provide answers to what led to Dulce’s disappearance.

Investigators are still searching for a man whose sketch was released in mid-October in connection with the case — someone who may have been at the park at the time of Dulce’s disappearance. Police aren’t calling him a suspect at this time.

The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children has been assisting in the case since an Amber Alert was issued on Sept. 17. A $52,000 reward is being offered for information leading to Dulce’s whereabouts.

Family and members of the local community say they are trying not to give up hope.

During the vigil, Alavez Perez told the media present that she’s worried because police haven’t found much evidence.

“We know nothing about my daughter still,” she said.

Noema Alavez Perez speaks with the press on Saturday, November 16, 2019. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Life hasn’t been the same without Dulce, she said: It’s difficult to go out in public because of the increased attention, and last week people mistakenly thought Camila was Dulce and started to take photos.

She said she hopes the man police are searching for comes forward so they can find Dulce as soon as possible.

“Two months is a really long time without her,” Alavez Perez said.

New K-9 and dive team efforts

A poster that Noema’s sister wrote for the vigil. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Stacey Filoon, a community volunteer helping in the search for Dulce, said efforts are underway to get new K-9 and dive teams to help in the investigation.

Bridgeton and the police have approved a start by the search teams once the family signs off. The plan is to have the dive team search all 31 miles of the nearby Cohansey River and other nearby waterways surrounding Bridgeton City Park.

Filoon said the team is going to search “as if it was Day One.”

She recently created a GoFundMe page for a billboard that would be hung near an old trestle bridge that greets people visiting the town, with lettering that reads, “Welcome to Bridgeton.”

“It’s so people from out of town know a child went missing from this area,” Filoon said. “You’re coming to visit a zoo and a beautiful park and have a family day, and a child is missing. And everybody entering Bridgeton should know that.”

But Filoon had to take the GoFundMe page down after several people commented on social media, calling it a scam.

“Unfortunately, when we did it with the permission of the family, they said it was a scam,” said Jackie Rodriguez, a representative of the family. “So just to avoid any problems, we took it down.”

A vigil for missing 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez is held outside a home in Bridgeton, N.J. on Saturday, November 16, 2019. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

Rodriguez said that although she feels some hope in the community has faded as there have been fewer updates in the case over the last several weeks, volunteers are still working hard to get the word out through flyers and other means.

“No one wanted to be here doing another event like this,” Rodriguez said. “We all wanted Dulce home a long time ago. We still have the faith, and we still have hope that she will be returned safely back with her family.”

Norma Perez Alavez, grandmother of missing 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez at a vigil held outside a home in Bridgeton, N.J. on Saturday, November 16, 2019. (Miguel Martinez for WHYY)

“It’s gonna take a village to bring her home”

Even as flyers are being downloaded and shared as far away as Texas, California, and Canada, volunteers want to focus on spreading the word in Bridgeton, too.

During a recent community search, Filoon said, volunteers stopped in a barbershop about a block away from where Dulce disappeared and people inside had not heard about it.

“There’s a lot of people that didn’t want to take the flyers,” she said. “They were saying it’s been too long. What does that mean, that it’s been too long? So people stop caring?”

“It takes a village to raise a child, and it’s gonna take a village to bring her home,” Filoon said. “So we all have to stick together.”

Rodriguez said she and Alavez Perez will appear Nov. 21 on an episode of the national talk show “Dr. Phil.”. She thinks it will help draw more national attention to Dulce’s disappearance.

Anyone who has information about the case is asked to contact the Bridgeton Police Department at 856-451-0033. According to Cumberland County’s Prosecutor’s Office, authorities will not question witnesses about their immigration status. Information may be supplied anonymously by texting TIP411.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.