The search for Dulce Maria Alavez entered it fourth full day Friday with law enforcement officers massing in Bridgeton to conduct another search of the large city park where the 5-year-old girl was last seen on Monday afternoon.
» UPDATE: More details on Friday’s search efforts
While officials issued an Amber Alert Tuesday night based on witness accounts that they saw a girl believed to be Dulce leaving the park with a man in a red van, they say they are not ruling out other possible scenarios.
Law enforcement officials from around the area started arriving around 5:30 a.m. Friday, before fanning out for another search of the 1,100-acre park and surrounding area. A State Police helicopter also took part.
Rewards for information in the case increased to $30,000 Friday, with the New Jersey Police Benevolent Association adding $5,000 to the $10,000 offered by the FBI and the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office, $10,000 by the Newfield National Bank, and $5,000 by Tortilleria El Paisano, a Bridgeton tortilla bakery.
On Thursday, officials and her family pleaded anew for help in finding out what happened to the little girl.
“We are open to any tips, any leads, that may lead us to find Dulce,” Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said.
“Por favor,” Dulce’s grandmother, who prosecutors asked to remain unnamed, said as she wept at a news conference.
“We have not been able to eat nor sleep,” she said through a translator. “You can’t imagine what we are going through. We are very sad. Please help our family, I beg of you.”
Webb-McRae described the search as wide open, with seemingly few solid leads and mounting pressure.
“As time passes, it gets harder to find her,” the prosecutor said as a search helicopter circled overhead. The helicopter, canine units, a dive team, and state and local police — including Spanish-speaking officers and behavioral specialists — have combed the area since Monday, Webb-McRae said.
Witnesses told authorities that a man was seen leading the girl from the playground into the van, which had a sliding door and tinted window. Compiling information from those accounts, police said in a statement Tuesday that “detectives believe Dulce was taken by a light-skinned Hispanic male, 5’6” to 5’8”, thin build, no facial hair and facial acne, wearing orange sneakers, red pants and a black shirt.”
But on Thursday, Webb-McRae characterized the man as someone who could “greatly assist” the investigation without elaborating on any potential role in the girl’s disappearance.
She said investigators were still seeking to identify and talk to the man, but were not excluding “any other car, any other person,” in the search. Officials have said they were questioning relatives and others connected to the girl or her family, but also were exploring the possibility that Dulce could be the victim of a random abduction.
Anyone calling will not be questioned about their immigration status, said Webb-McRae, who noted that “no detail is too small.”
Noema Alavez Perez, the girl’s mother, has said she drove to the park Monday after buying ice cream for her 8-year-old sister, her 3-year-old son, Manuel, and Dulce.
While Alavez Perez, 19, spoke with her sister in the parking lot, Dulce and Manuel ran toward the swings on the playground. They were out of sight for just a few minutes when Manuel ran back, crying and pointing, she said.
“I thought she was playing hide-and-seek,” Alavez Perez said. Alavez Perez, her brother, and the family’s 8-month-old pit bull-boxer mix searched as she called police.
On Thursday evening, investigators paced the park, bustling with pick-up basketball games and after-school energy. Lula Suggs watched as two girls, not much older than Dulce, shrieked with glee as they spun on the creaking play equipment.
Suggs, who works with the Vineland Youth Advocate Program, said she brings her kids to the park regularly, and saw Dulce playing there last Friday.
“I’m keeping her in my prayers. I close my eyes at night and can’t stop thinking of her," Suggs said. “You don’t think something like this can happen so close to home, but these days, it can.”