Jeannette Lopez shook water off her poncho and pushed through a patch of brambles, using a walking stick to clear her path. It was the second rainy Sunday in a row for Lopez to spend in Bridgeton, N.J., searching for any sign of Dulce Maria Alavez, the 5-year-old girl who vanished from a city playground six weeks ago.
Lopez was one of a few dozen volunteers who joined the search, which was organized by Alavez’s family. Like most searchers, Lopez lives outside of Bridgeton, in Vineland; others Sunday came from much more distant places, such as Reading, Pa., and Staten Island, N.Y. Despite ongoing media coverage of the girl’s disappearance, few community members who are not related to Dulce have joined the search efforts in recent weeks.
“A lot more people should be out here,” Lopez said Sunday as she and a group explored a field on the edge of Bridgeton, Cumberland County. “More people should be involved. If it was any of our kids, we’d want people to go out and look."
Dulce was last seen Sept. 16 in Bridgeton City Park, where she’d gone with her mother, her 3-year-old brother, and the mother’s 8-year-old sister. Dulce accompanied her brother to a playground while her mother and the 8-year-old remained nearby in a car. The mother called 911 just before 5 p.m., telling the operator that she found her son alone and crying when she went to look for the kids.
A sighting of a man leading the girl to a van sparked an Amber Alert, and authorities have since searched Bridgeton and the 1,100-acre park, and investigated more than 1,000 tips. Dulce is on the FBI’s list of most-wanted missing people, and a reward for information stands at $52,000. Earlier this month, authorities released a sketch of a man who reportedly was seen with small children in the same park, and asked for help identifying him. They have described him as a possible witness.
The family has held three searches this month, combing various parts of the city. Last week’s volunteers included a church group that traveled to New Jersey from Virginia. On Sunday, chaplains and members of church groups from the region and from out of state showed up despite sometimes drenching rain.
A few volunteers said they were moved by Dulce’s story because of her young age. Others said the story made them think of their own children, and they wanted to support the little girl’s family in their time of need. Locals were touched but wanted more from their own.
“Lot of people from out of town, and that’s great,” said Joyce Lane-Brewer, a Bridgeton resident who joined the search on Sunday. “But this is one of our children. The people of Bridgeton should be out here.”
Some locals have said that members of the city’s immigrant community are fearful of doing anything that might lead to contact with police.
County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae and Bridgeton Police Chief Michael Gaimari have said local authorities will not investigate anyone’s status, and asked immigrant residents to come forward with any information. But in the early days of the investigation, the boyfriend of Dulce’s mother, Noema Alavez Perez, was taken into custody by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
He was detained as part of what ICE described as an ongoing investigation and released soon after. An ICE spokesman said that the agency does not target witnesses and “encourages all individuals regardless of status to cooperate with local, state, and federal authorities without fear of reprisal.”
But Jackie Rodriguez, a Vineland resident who is acting as a spokesperson for the family, said the incident caused a chilling effect.
“I think they saw that and said, ‘I’m not saying nothing,’" she said.
Other volunteers acknowledged that as time passes with little news, some may no longer believe that the child will be found. But Lane-Brewer said the family still has hope.
“People say, ‘I pray,’ but prayer without work is nothing,” Lane-Brewer said. “We have to care about each other. The people who are here care about that little girl."
Authorities ask that anyone who can identify the witness or who has other information about the case contact the Bridgeton Police Department at 856-451-0033. Authorities say they will not question witnesses about their immigration status.