Beginning at daybreak Friday, authorities again combed Bridgeton City Park and the surrounding area in attempts to locate a missing 5-year-old girl, emphasizing that they are still considering “all possibilities” for what might have happened to her.
Dulce Maria Alavez was last seen at the park about 4:20 p.m. Monday, and authorities have scoured the area for her since. An Amber Alert was issued late Tuesday saying the girl was apparently abducted — possibly by a man who led her into a red van.
Four days into the investigation, officials have expanded their search of the winding wooded park and say they haven’t ruled anything out, but that doesn’t mean they are “back at square one,” Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said.
“When you follow a lead and it doesn’t take you to bringing Dulce home, we pivot, we reconsider the information, and we recheck, and take every new lead,” Webb-McRae said.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll find Dulce alive, because we have no physical evidence, we have not found Dulce.... We still have hope,” she said, pleading for people in the community to come forward with more information.
During a Friday news conference, Webb-McRae asked people in Bridgeton to observe and report any suspicious or sudden changes in someone’s appearance or behavior, including intense interest or aversion to media coverage of the case.
Those providing tips on Dulce’s disappearance will not be questioned about their immigration status, the prosecutor stressed. Spanish-speaking officers are available in the majority-Hispanic area to talk to tipsters.
The girl’s mother, 19-year-old Noema Alavez Perez, and her family have cooperated with law enforcement, officials said. At least one New Jersey state vehicle was parked outside her Bridgeton home Friday afternoon.
Since Monday, officials have received “hundreds of tips” regarding the girl’s disappearance, Webb-McRae said, and law enforcement has “looked into every red van we can be aware of.”
On the search’s fourth day, more than 100 law enforcement officials began arriving at the park around 5:30 a.m., fanning out for another look at the 1,100-acre site and nearby areas. A state police helicopter also took part. Officials set up camp at the Bridgeton High School football stadium as search dogs sniffed around the park.
But by midafternoon, they were wrapping up efforts with no sign of the child or someone who may have taken her.
“We do not have any strong suspects at this time," Bridgeton Police Chief Michael Gaimari said. He wouldn’t describe what, if anything, investigators recovered, and described Friday’s search as an effort “to cover our tracks again.”
“We continue to consider all possibilities,” Webb-McRae said.
Rewards for information in the case increased to $35,000 Friday.
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. But on Friday, Webb-McRae characterized the man simply as a “person that we want to talk to.”
Ivan Lucero, co-owner of Bridgeton’s Tortilleria el Paisano, contributed $5,000 to the growing reward, saying the search for Dulce hits home.
"When I see her, she looks like my daughter. It’s heartbreaking,” he said. “Hopefully someone will talk.”