The FBI has added 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez to the agency’s list of high-profile kidnapping and missing-person cases.
The latest development comes as the hunt for the girl is in its second week. Dulce was reported missing Sept. 16, after she disappeared from Bridgeton’s 1,100-acre City Park.
Dulce now appears first on the FBI “Most Wanted” list of 90 kidnapped or missing people, which also includes Danielle Imbo and Richard Petrone, Philadelphia-area residents who disappeared together after going out on a date in February 2005.
Authorities say they are still looking for a man in a red van, who has been described by investigators as both a possible suspect and a possible witness in the girl’s disappearance.
The reward for information in the case now stands at $35,000, but there is no indication whether it has generated useful tips.
Investigators are reviewing videos submitted to them after the FBI appealed to the public for photos or videos taken in the park in a three-hour period surrounding the time Dulce disappeared. They also are examining area surveillance videos and film from school bus dashcams. Investigators have also reportedly spoken to the girl’s father, who, according to Dulce’s family, is in Mexico.
Meanwhile, school officials in the nearby city of Vineland are investigating a teacher who allegedly posted an “offensive” comment on Facebook about the girl’s disappearance, the Daily Journal of Vineland reported. Commenting on why Dulce’s mother stayed in a car while the girl and her 3-year-old brother went to a playground alone, the teacher, Jennifer Hewitt Bishop, wrote: “They’re Mexican, it’s their culture. They don’t supervise their children like we do.”
Dulce was last seen at the playground about 4:20 p.m. Sept. 16 and authorities have scoured the area for her since.
An Amber Alert was issued more than 24 hours after she 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, and the Cumberland County Prosecutor’s Office said, “We continue to treat this as a missing person investigation until evidence indicates otherwise.”
Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae has said investigators have not ruled out anything in the search for the girl and are pursuing leads.
“We continue to be remain hopeful that Dulce is alive,” she said in statement Wednesday.
Anyone providing tips on Dulce’s disappearance will not be questioned about immigration status, the prosecutor has said. 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 say.
Alavez Perez said she drove to the park with her 8-year-old sister, 5-year-old daughter, and 3-year-old son after buying ice cream.
Alavez Perez said she stayed in the car with her little sister to talk about homework while Dulce and her brother went to the playground 30 yards away.
A short time later, the boy returned crying and pointing to some buildings near the playground, Alavez Perez has said.
She went to look for Dulce but found no trace of her. Police were then called in.