Next month will mark the first anniversary since 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez vanished off a New Jersey playground in broad daylight. Investigators searching believe the little girl may have been abducted by someone looking for an opportunity to take a child, according to the FBI.
The pretty brown-haired, brown-eyed girl stood at 3-feet tall and weighed 60-70 pounds when she was last seen on Sept. 16 at a Bridgeton park. She wore a yellow shirt with an elephant on it, black and white pants and white shoes the day she vanished, police said.
Detectives believe that Dulce was taken by a light-skinned Hispanic man, described as standing 5-foot-8, with a thin build, facial acne, no facial hair. He was wearing orange sneakers, red pants and a black shirt when he allegedly led the youngster to a red van with a sliding side door, cops said.
FBI special agent Daniel Garrabrant, an East Coast leader for the FBI's Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team, said she has seen cases like this across the country. In these cases, offenders go to places where children are and where they would have access to children, and they wait for the opportunity.
"If you are looking for a child to take the child, you go where the children are," said Garrabrant. "That's one reason we believe that the target was a child, but it may not necessarily have been Dulce." Garrabrant said Dulce's mother was far away from where she was playing on the playground. This may have been the unidentified man's "opportunity for him to take Dulce and leave with her, and that's what he did."
Dulce's mother, Noema Alavez Perez, told police she had taken her children to the park and remained in the car while Dulce and her 3-year-old brother, Manuel, ran out to the playground 30 yards away. She said she was checking a scratch-off lottery ticket and helping her 8-year-old sister with homework. Minutes later, Perez walked over the playground, and Manuel was there, but Dulce was gone.
"The person's intent may not have been to take a kid," Garrabrant 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."
In the 11 months since Dulce's disappearance, investigators have expanded their efforts and have searched the wooded areas, waterways and vacant buildings in the Bridgeton area. They've checked sex offender registries in South Jersey to see if there are any possible connections in the case. And according to the Cumberland County Prosecutors office, police officers have conducted door-to-door visits, and residents have also been doing their part by continuing to do community outreach.
Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae has said the case remains an "active investigation locally, nationally and internationally" and noted that "the family remains cooperative."
During an interview last September, Dulce's mother told NJ Advance Media that Dulce's father, who now lives in Mexico, expressed an interest in custody of the child when she was 1 or 2 years old, but never followed through on it. Investigators have found no evidence of a custody dispute between Dulce's parents. Investigators have interviewed Dulce's father who's been cooperative, Garrabrant said.
To generate more interest in the missing persons case, billboards have appeared on highways asking the public to contact the police for any leads leading to Dulce's disappearance. A GoFundMe Page had been set up to raise money for additional billboards in the Bridgeton area. And, coupon booklets created by The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children containing a "Have You Seen Me?" feature displaying Dulce's photo have also been distributed nationwide.
The playground that is located next to a few storage buildings, and the abductor could have been parked along the street on the other side of those buildings and waited, according to Garrabrant.
On the warm September afternoon that Dulce disappeared, the park was busy with people playing basketball, and witnesses confirmed seeing kids at the playground. Two descriptions emerged of what investigators believe is the same person: a Hispanic man about 30 to 35 years old with acne.
Investigators are still looking for people who may have seen something suspicious. The agent said of all the thousands of leads on red vans that they have gotten, none have panned out.
And, the park is also adjacent to two schools, and kids may pass through the park on their way to classes, and "a student may have information without realizing it," Garrabrant adds.
"What we know for sure is that the person that took Dulce Alavez was in that park in Bridgeton from at least 4 o'clock to 4:30," she said. "We really believe that there are people out there that saw something that would be critical for us."
One of the challenges in the case, is that witnesses may not step forward because they don't believe they have valuable information, explained Garrabrant.
Bridgeton is a small farming city of about 25,000 in South Jersey, an area where many Mexican immigrants reside. Some may be undocumented and may fear being deported if they talk, authorities said. Officials have assured those living in the area that they are only interested in Dulce's disappearance and not their immigration status.
Members of the public are being asked to consider people they know who changed their behavior or habits around Dulce's time.
"The abductor would have missed work or family get-togethers, or may have suddenly left town without warning," Garrabrant said. "He may have changed the color of his car or made a significant change to his appearance."
In April, Dulce turned 6 years old and with the one-year anniversary of her disappearance approaching, investigators are hoping their will be renewed public attention in the case.
In the meantime, her family holds out hope that they will be reunited soon with their little Dulce.
According to prosecutors, there have been hundreds of tips that have been collected through the FBI tip line (1-800-CALL-FBI) and the police department's TIP411 text alerts. Authorities ask anyone with information to call New Jersey State Police at 609-882-2000, ext 2554, or Bridgeton police at 856-451-0033.
Anyone with information is asked to call the FBI at 1-800-CALL-FBI, select option 4, then select option 8. Anonymous tips may be sent by text to TIP411 with "Bridgeton," in the message line.