BRIDGETON, N.J. – At the El Paisano tortilla factory, the comforting aroma of baking bread can’t mask the dread that has enveloped this rural river town.
“Everybody’s spooked,” said owner Ivan Lucero, 32.
In the space of three weeks — since 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez disappeared from a playground, possibly taken by a man in a red van — this poor, mostly Latino community of about 25,000 people has turned somber, suddenly a place where parents keep intense watch over their children, whether the kids are munching a burger at McDonald’s or awaiting a school bus at a street corner.
“Our kids come home from school — ‘Mom, are there any updates?’” said Lucero’s wife, Esmeralda, 29.
Their Tortilleria el Paisano contributed $5,000 toward a reward, now at $40,000, for information that could help unlock the mystery. Every chance he gets, Ivan sends his drone into the sky to search woodlands and lake banks.
John McNesby, president of Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 5 in Philadelphia, said his union has also put up a $5,000 reward. “It’s just a sad story, and too close to home,” he said.
The FOP’s reward money will be available to anyone who provides information that leads to the arrest of a suspect. “Bring them in,” McNesby said, “and you are paid.”
Police announced no new leads or findings at a Friday news briefing.
What this town in far South Jersey has in abundance are rumors, circulating so tightly around the girl’s family that the FBI publicly asked people to stop spreading misinformation. A widely shared Facebook post falsely claimed that Dulce’s mother had been arrested, prompting police to investigate the post’s origins. Social media produces a daily blizzard of speculation.
“People are inventing things about me,” said Noema Alavez Perez, 19, Dulce’s mother, who is the American-born daughter of Mexican immigrants. “I used to drink, and people still think I’m that way, going out all the time like that.… People are looking at everything about my life now.”
She’s sleepless with worry, she said, and horrified that anyone would think she would hurt or endanger her daughter. She was in her car, only 30 yards away, when her child vanished.
The Bridgeton Police Department, Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office, New Jersey State Police, and FBI continue to investigate. No one has been ruled out as a suspect.
The seat of Cumberland County is an urban enclave surrounded by farms and fields and bordering the Cohansey River. It’s a community of old churches and new people, a place that’s undergone rapid demographic change while promoting a rich and often quirky history.
People here claim Bridgeton as the real-world location of the fictional Gotham City, based on clues in Batman comic-book lore. And they say that local 19th-century industrialist Oberlin Smith was the true inventor of magnetic sound recording — his ideas stolen by Thomas Edison. George Washington may be buried in Virginia, but his horse is buried here, local legend holds, laid to rest not far from the courthouse.
Economically, Bridgeton struggles, according to 2010 census data. One-third of the population lives in poverty, more than triple the state rate. The median income of $34,135 is half that of New Jersey as a whole. Only 5% of the population has a college degree, compared with nearly 40% statewide.
During the last couple of decades, a county once dominated by glass-making and textiles has seen food production and processing step up, buttressed by a tide of Spanish-speakers from Mexico, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, and Cuba. Five of the county’s top 15 employers grow, freeze, package, or transport food.
The city’s Latino population surged from 43% in 2010 to 51% in 2017, census figures show, even as the total number of residents dropped slightly, from 25,349 to 24,948. Whites make up about 17% and African Americans 29%. Today, one out of every three Bridgeton residents is Mexican.
Newcomers have brought vitality to the town, opening Mexican grocery stores and Salvadoran restaurants. Everywhere are cultural juxtapositions, like the way Nacho’s Mini Market and Dailey’s Hardware face each other across downtown’s Pearl Street.
County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae and Bridgeton Police Chief Michael Gaimari urged immigrant residents to come forward if they have information about the missing girl regardless of their status, saying local authorities have no interest in whether someone is undocumented — only in finding Dulce.
But fear of official contact is real, heightened after Alavez Perez said that Edgar Martinez, 27, her boyfriend and the father of the child she carries, was taken into custody, for unclear reasons, by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He was subsequently released.
In August, immigration activists in nearby Vineland protested a city contract that allows ICE agents to use the local police firing range. They argued unsuccessfully that ICE was abusive, and the range represented a way for the agency to establish an enforcement presence, the Vineland Daily Journal reported.
Dulce was last seen at 4:20 p.m. Sept. 16 on the playground, set on a hill in the city’s green, 1,100-acre City Park.
Perez said she drove there with her 8-year-old sister, 3-year-old son, and Dulce after first stopping to buy ice cream. She stayed in the car to talk to her sister about homework while the two other children played.
On the 911 call, she told police that she and her sister went to check on the children and found the little boy alone, crying, saying someone had thrown his ice cream on the ground and his sister “just ran away.”
Alavez Perez doesn’t live with Dulce, who is being raised by grandparents, but said she saw her daughter every day. Investigators have visited her several times, she said, to ask questions and see if she could identify people in photographs. They also have taken and returned her cell phone three or four times.
Hard scrutiny comes from those like school-bus driver Lorraine Allen, 59, of nearby Laurel Lake.
“The mother, what was she doing?” Allen demanded. “Not paying no mind to this little girl.… Now everyone is crying and carrying on.”
Lula Suggs said that when news of the disappearance broke on TV, she instantly recognized Dulce as the child she saw at the playground three days earlier, chasing around with her younger brother while their mother watched from her car.
“I knew that long, pretty hair right away,” said Suggs, who went to high school in Bridgeton and now works with the Vineland Youth Advocate Program. “Unbelievable.”
An Amber Alert said the girl was apparently abducted, possibly by a man who may have led her into a red van.
“It’s really rocked this town,” said Amy Petrie, executive director of the Bridgeton Main Street program. “It’s something you don’t stop thinking about.”
A makeshift shrine has risen near the playground. Yellow ribbons, stuffed animals, and dozens of prayer candles stand beside typewritten prayers and handwritten signs, one pleading, “Bring Dulce Alavez Home.”
Veronica Liberato, 26, brought her children to the playground Wednesday and watched them kick a soccer ball, still shocked that a child could disappear in a public place in the middle of the day.
“Parents here,” she said, “are really starting to pay attention to their kids more.”
Staff writer Dylan Purcell contributed to this article.