As the expansive search for 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez nears its third week, officials say they remain hopeful the girl who mysteriously vanished in broad daylight from a Bridgeton, N.J. playground is still alive.
“To date, we are still searching for that key piece of information to lead us to Dulce,” Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said Friday.
She added: “In the absence of physical evidence that Dulce has not been physically harmed, we continue to operate ... that she is still is alive.”
Latest on the search
Investigative efforts: Since Dulce was last seen at the 1,100-acre Bridgeton City Park on Sept. 16, more than 300 officers have scoured the park and beyond, searched hundreds of buildings, contacted registered sex offenders in the area, reviewed video footage, and investigated more than 500 red vehicles, Webb-McRae said.
Officials have searched the area by land, air, and water, Webb-McRae said, draining the park’s raceway and using sonar and dive teams to search other nearby bodies of water.
The FBI remains on the scene, and has been in contact with law enforcement in Mexico, where Dulce’s father lives, Webb-McRae said.
Appeal for vigilance: The prosecutor asked the public to remain vigilant, and report any sightings of a girl who could be Dulce to authorities, adding that “with a child this age ... it could be the best chance of finding her.”
The red van: An Amber Alert was issued more than 24 hours after Dulce was last seen, saying the girl was apparently abducted — possibly by a man who, witnesses told investigators, may have led her into a red van. But officials have shifted back and forth on whether the man was a suspect or a witness.
On Friday, Webb-McRae said the information about the red vehicle and man came from “a child of tender years,” but that she "will not discount it.”
Citizen search: The girl’s family has organized a citizen search of the park this weekend, the prosecutor said.
Reward for info: The reward for information has climbed to $35,000.
911 audio released
In a newly released 911 call, Dulce’s mother, Noema Alavez Perez, can be heard reporting her daughter’s disappearance.
“I can’t find my daughter,” the 19-year-old woman anxiously tells a dispatcher. “We were here at the park and people said that somebody … probably somebody took her.”
In a continuation of the phone call, Perez tells the dispatcher she was told her daughter was seen running toward storage shed “houses” near the back of the park with two men.
On Friday, Bridgeton Police Chief Michael Gaimari clarified, saying that what the mother told dispatchers was hearsay, and that the description of a suspect released in the Amber Alert occurred only after the witnesses in the park were “interviewed and re-interviewed.”
‘I hope and pray we can make this happen’
On Thursday, at an unrelated press conference, Gov. Phil Murphy implored the public to speak up in hopes of bringing the girl home.
Echoing previous statements from Bridgeton law enforcement, the governor said tipsters in the majority-Hispanic area will not be asked about their immigration status.
Under New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s Immigrant Trust Directive enacted last year, law enforcement officers are forbidden, except in limited circumstances, to ask about immigration status.
“This is about finding Dulce safe and sound. Period,” Murphy said. “Bridgeton is a tight and proud community. Working together in trust and in partnership, I hope and pray we can make this happen.”
How to report info
Officials ask that anyone who was in Bridgeton City Park between 3 and 5 p.m. on Sept. 16 contact the Bridgeton Police Department at (856) 451-0033. Tipsters can also call 1-800-CALLFBI (1-800-225-5324), selecting Option 4, then Option 8. Tips can be anonymously texted to TIP411 with “Bridgeton” in the message. Video and photos can be sent at fbi.gov/alavez.