Dulce Alavez not forgotten one year after disappearance, prosecutor says
BRIDEGTON — Noema Perez brought her 5-year-old daughter Dulce Alavez, to Bridgeton City Park one year ago this week — Sept. 16, 2019.
Dulce hasn't been seen since. The last reported sighting came from a young witness who told police that she was seen walking with a man toward a red van at Bridgeton City Park.
The exact circumstances of her disappearance remain a mystery. Countless community searches have failed to find her. Police have been flooded with tips. Law enforcement and people close to the family received cryptic letters and maps. A woman who says she can peak to the dead made stunning, disturbing claims. Dulce's mother suggested on Dr. Phi's show an "old friend" could be responsible.
None of those leads led to anywhere conclusive. Dulce remains near the top of the FBI's Most Wanted kidnapping and Missing Persons list.
But the community in Bridgeton hasn't forgotten about Dulce Alavez. Members held a Dulce's Day commemoration Sunday around a tree dedicated to keeping her case alive. It was organized by Jackie Rodriquez, who for months served as a family spokesperson.
Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae, whose office leads the investigation, said the FBI, the State Police Missing Persons Unit and Bridgeton police are still working the case. A $75,000 reward for information leading to an arrest in the case remains.
"This investigation is not going to close until either we find Dulce or we find the person responsible for her disappearance," Webb-McRae said. "The challenge is to keep the investigation alive in the mind of community members in this area and throughout the nation."
She said she's hopeful that will remind someone of something that didn't seem right on Sept. 16, or lead to a sighting of Dulce.
Dulce's picture was displayed in Times Square on an electronic billboard donated by ReCreation Concerts at the end of August. Kelly McLaughlin told NJ.com she got her boss, Michael Vechesky, to make the donation.
Webb-McRae said that it gets harder at the one year mark to continue the search, as leads become fewer, but she looks at the case as a puzzle. Investigators have been out of state as recently as the last 30 days following up on tips.
"You're keeping your mind open. As we get further away from the date she disappeared sometimes you might get a few less tips or leads. You take that time to look at all the pieces you have, reexamine them with new pieces that you have and see if it makes sense to you," Webb-McRae said.
Perez, Dulce's mother, has said she was sitting in her car nearby scratching lottery tickets and helping her own 8-year-old sister with homework when Dulce went missing. She said the girl's 3-year-old brother had been playing with her at the time, but came back to the car without his sister.
The boy is non-verbal and has not been able to tell police what he witnessed. On the Dr. Phil show, she said the FBI tried to communicate with the boy.
Bridgeton police chief Michael Gaimari told New Jersey 101.5 earlier this year that Austintown, Ohio police received several letters including a small map that indicated Dulce's body would be found in a wooded area near the Hollywood casino and race track. A search that weekend turned up nothing, according to Gaimari.
It's one of the thousands of tips that have been received by law enforcement, according to Gaimari.
"It deters the investigators who are working the case because sometimes we have to divert their attention to some of these letters that are received or some of this information that really has no tie to the investigation," Gaimari said.
Webb-McRae said there's a lot of "conjecture and theories" about what happened to Dulce but said her office has been able to filter out a lot of dead leads.
"I work with people who constantly challenge themselves to go back and follow the evidence and either rule in possibilities or rule them out," Webb-McRae said.
On the Dr. Phil show — in an edited interview presentation heavy with dramatic music — Rodriguez suggested Perez may know more than she is telling anyone. "I feel she knows that child is OK. She's missing her but then I felt like she knows she's OK," Rodriguez said.
On the same show, Perez spoke, though succinctly and briefly, to several of the rumors that have followed her since Dulce's disappearance. She denied selling her daughter, or arranging her kidnapping. She initially said she didn't have any theories about who took her daughter before suggesting it could have been an "old friend," without saying who or why.
"The last time he saw me, me and my daughter together he just waved at me and said hi. He asked me if that was my daughter and I told him yes," Perez told the show's host. She said the person had been trying to date her.
Webb-McRae's office said in October of last year that it wanted to speak to a man described as light-skinned, possibly Hispanic, standing about 5 feet 7 inches with a slender build and between 30 to 35 years old. Authorities haven't said if there's any connection between him and the "old friend" Perez described.
The coronavirus has not impacted the investigation into Dulce's disappearance, Webb-McRae said — adding that crime does not take a holiday during a health pandemic.
"I don't know that that's the most serious obstruction we have to this investigation. It's one of the things we've had to deal with. I think what's important for me is that as the passage of time increases I need to emphasize to the public that this is an active, ongoing investigation," Webb-McRae said.
McRae said that information about Dulce's disappearance can be called in to Bridgeton police at 856-451-0033. It can also be sent anonymously by using the Bridgeton's TIP 411 text service, by texting "Bridgeton" plus the tip to 847411. Tips can additionally be made to the FBI at 800-CALL-FBI (225-5324) option 4, option 8.
Authorities have stressed repeatedly they're not interested in the immigration status of anyone who may have information.
"I want to reassure them that we do not care about their immigration status if they were a witness or a victim to any crime. That's because of our attorney general's trust directive," McRae-Webb said. "I would just want to encourage the public here, in Cumberland County as well as throughout the nation that no piece of information is too insignificant an to report it."