After walking one more time through the playground where she last saw her 5-year-old daughter, Noema Alavez Perez wondered aloud about her disappearance. She knows so little.
All she knows is that her daughter, Dulce, raced off to play, ran toward someone — and then she was gone.
There was a witness: Dulce’s 3-year-old brother, Manuel. But he can say only so much.
“He saw everything, but like he’s too young,” the 19-year-old mother said last week. "For him, it’s hard to talk.”
Four months later, Dulce Maria Alavez is still missing.
Authorities have interviewed 1,000 people, including the child’s father in Mexico, people who were in Bridgeton City Park on the day she disappeared, and registered sex offenders in Cumberland and surrounding counties. They have chased down countless leads from tip lines from sources as far away as California, Michigan, and Texas, Bridgeton Police Chief Michael Gaimari said.
After all that work, Gaimari remains hopeful and insists that the investigation has made progress. “I’m optimistic she’s alive,” he said.
A task force of investigators from the police department, New Jersey State Police, county prosecutors, and the FBI meets daily as part of what Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae described as “an active ongoing investigation.”
Authorities have urged anyone with information about the child’s disappearance to call law enforcement. There is a $75,000 reward for information on her whereabouts.
“If you can come forward … I’m telling you that may be the crucial piece that finds” Dulce, said FBI Special Agent-in-Charge Gregory Ehrie, head of the Newark field office.
He and Supervisory Special Agent Christina Bedford said the agency’s Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team joined the effort to find Dulce within about 24 hours of her disappearance.
Ehrie said investigators have examined “terabytes of video," but declined to discuss specifics of the investigation — including whether authorities are still looking for a man who may fit the description of a composite sketch of a person seen in the park on the day Dulce disappeared or a red van that a child saw in the park that day.
Alavez Perez, in an interview at her parents’ Bridgeton home, seemed to hold on to hope. Asked what she thought happened to Dulce, she said in a quiet voice: “I’m not sure.”
“I still have hope that she’s alive,” she said.
Asked what she would say to the person who took her child, Alavez Perez said: “To let her go. She’s still young. I don’t even know why they took her, what was the reason they took her. She still has her whole life in front of her. It’s just sad that they took a little girl.”
She misses her daughter, she said: “Inside of me hurts a lot.”
A Bridgeton native, Alavez Perez said she’s been living with her boyfriend, Edgar Martinez, 27, about a five-minute drive from her parents’ home. She’s eight months pregnant with his child, she said.
Her parents, who came to the United States from Mexico 20 years ago, took care of Dulce and Manuel.
She said she didn’t really know Dulce’s father, Edgar Perez, who is about five years older and got her pregnant when she was 13. They weren’t in a relationship, she said, and when Dulce was a toddler, he returned to Mexico.
After Dulce’s disappearance, he called, and Alavez Perez recalled not wanting to talk to him.
“Supposedly they’re worried about her, but we don’t see nothing from them, even helping us in the search,” she said of the child’s father and his family, who live in southwestern Mexico.
Dulce’s disappearance has drawn national attention, and Alavez Perez was invited to appear on the Dr. Phil show. On the show, she was asked whether she had any idea who could have taken the child and she said an “old friend I used to know.” Asked about that, she said she gave that answer because “Dr. Phil was like forcing me to say someone’s name,” but she’s not sure whether that acquaintance had anything to do with it.
The child vanished on a September day. Alavez Perez had taken the children and her 8-year-old sister, Camila, for ice cream and then to the park. Dulce and Manuel went off to play and she was in the car with her sister about 30 yards away when Dulce wandered out of sight. When she went to find her, she was gone.
Ever since, the mystery of what happened to Dulce has jolted residents of the South Jersey community.
In Bridgeton City Park last week, Annalyse Cooper, 29, was thinking of Dulce. “I just feel like people are still hopeful but also feel hopeless,” she said.
Speaking in Spanish, Antonio Ramirez, 30, a Bridgeton resident who hails from Oaxaca, said the case saddened him. “Nothing like this has happened here before,” he said.
For Dulce’s family, the pain is palpable. Her grandmother, Norma Perez Alavez, said she stopped working at her job packaging fruit in a factory and started going to church three times a week since her granddaughter’s disappearance.
“We are anguished,” she said in Spanish in an interview Friday. “Who took her? I left my job so I can wait [at home] if anyone comes” with news of Dulce.
Asked what she thinks happened, the 42-year-old grandmother said: “I don’t know. Only God knows.”