BRIDGETON, New Jersey -- As darkness started to set in on the afternoon of September 16, 2019, the playground at the sprawling Bridgeton City Park - roughly 1,000 acres of land - located in rural Cumberland County, New Jersey, may have provided the perfect cover for one of the area's most notorious unsolved crimes. It all started when a young girl, Dulce Maria Alavez, then 5, was playing with her younger brother.
"I can't find my daughter," Noema Alavez-Perez told the 911 dispatcher while appearing to hold back tears. "We were there at the park and people say that somebody... probably somebody took her."
Around 4 p.m., an hour before she called police, Alavez-Perez - 19 years old at the time - let her daughter, Dulce, and son, Manny - then 3 - run off to play on the swings at the playground. Alavez-Perez stayed inside her vehicle, scratching lottery tickets, while her 8-year-old sister Camila did homework.
FBI special agent Daniel Garrabrant, who has been in law enforcement for more than 20 years, says very few people had their eyes trained on Dulce or her abductor before she vanished. But with school getting out more than an hour earlier, it's highly likely that many people were walking around the park while the predator was waiting in the wings.
"We believe there are witnesses out there who saw the abductor, who saw the vehicle in the area of the park and either haven't come forward because they're afraid to come forward or haven't come forward because they don't realize how important the information is that they have," said Garrabrant.
In an interview with Action News a year after her daughter's disappearance, Alavez-Perez admits that for some time, her young children were completely out of her sight. She recalls a hill partially blocking her view while the kids played.
"I went to look for them because me and my sister we didn't see them no more, so we got down from the car and we just saw Manny crying," said Alavez-Perez.
In frantic 911 calls, Alavez-Perez can be heard saying, "They said somebody threw his ice cream on the floor and my daughter just ran away."
But 911 wasn't Alavez-Perez's first call after her daughter vanished. Alavez-Perez says she first called her brother, who lives nearby, in the first minutes upon learning Dulce may have been abducted.
"Because we have a dog and I told him to come from the house to the park, walking with the dog, and if he sees my daughter, to tell them, 'Why are they taking her.' After that, I called the police," Alavez-Perez said.
Within minutes, police descended on the park that sits behind the Bridgeton High School, gathering clues and interviewing what few immediate witnesses they could find. Crews, along with bloodhounds, searched the adjoining neighborhood, wooded area and nearby lake, but their suspect was long in the wind. Investigators would later conduct thousands of interviews and process thousands of hours of video frame by frame in hopes of finding any important clues.
Bridgeton Police Chief Michael Gaimari Sr., who has been working with the department since the late 80s, says roughly 400 vehicles passed near and around the park during the time frame before and after Dulce's disappearance.
"They were able to identify and reach out and speak to roughly 80% of the people of those vehicles. There still remains a certain amount that we were unable to identify," Gaimari says.
While there were no surveillance cameras over the playground area where Dulce was last seen, Gaimari says there are other videos that confirm that Dulce was at the park that day.
He also says that since police were called roughly 45 minutes after Dulce's abduction, the scope of the investigation was considerably larger. The delay opened the window to joggers, people at the nearby high school and those playing at an adjacent field.
Federal investigators strongly believe that the suspect knew the lay of the land before taking the little girl.
"The person that did this likely lived in Bridgeton, been familiar with Bridgeton or had a reason to be where they were in that park," Garrabrant said.
Searching for a suspect
A day after Dulce was kidnapped, authorities issued an Amber Alert with one key suspect characteristic: a man in a red van. The description quickly spawned a flurry of tips, and that meant every possible red van in South Jersey would come into question.
Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae, who has been prosecuting cases in the county for more than 11 years, stated early in the investigation that the initial suspect description was established from a witness of "tender years," stressing the importance of not discrediting any information.
"We received that information from a witness of tender years. I would not discount it, but we have searched and gotten many, many tips about red vans. We've examined every video that we could possibly find in the area of the recreation area and Bridgeton and tracked down all of the vehicles that we could track down. What I want the public to understand is that we have that information. We've ruled out as best we can every red vehicle, red van in the area. I'm not wed to a red van," Webb-McRae said.
Investigators scoured the area for signs of Dulce and that red van. Police and the community participated in search after search in hopes of finding any key piece of evidence. Nothing has ever been found and no red van has ever been located that could be connected to Dulce, according to authorities.
Two descriptions of a possible suspect started to emerge early in the investigation.
According to the Amber Alert, which was derived from initial witness accounts, Dulce may have been taken by a light-skinned, possibly Hispanic male who is 5'6" to 5'8" tall, thin build, no facial hair, but has acne on his face. He was seen wearing orange sneakers, possibly Nike, red pants, and a black shirt.
A month later, on October 15, 2019, police released a composite sketch, describing the man as Hispanic, roughly 5'7", slender build, roughly 30-35 years old. He was last seen wearing a white T-shirt, blue jeans and a white baseball-style hat.
Gaimari says there were more than just children on the court that day and witnesses were re-interviewed. This helped authorities provide a more accurate depiction of the person that could bring some answers in the case.
The FBI says the public should be on the lookout for a young Hispanic male, roughly 25 to 35 years old who was seen in the area of the playground.
READ MORE: Sketch released of possible witness in case of Dulce Maria Alavez
"That photo is still a good photo," Webb-McRae says. "What I want the public to understand is that's the best information that we got and gleaned at the time from a witness that came forward."
Webb-McRae urges the public to keep an open mind, even beyond the sketch.
"If someone started to act differently, seemed distressed, seemed off their game, did something strange that was in the area of where Dulce disappeared-- we want the public to come forward with that information," she said.
The person who took Dulce may have not shown up for work for a few days or changed their appearance or their vehicle's appearance. Webb-McRae also urged the public to take note of any sudden addition of children to families that are in your neighborhood.
"If you know a family that didn't have a child, pops up with a child that's in the five, six-year-old range, and that seems suspicious to you, then I'd ask that you contact our FBI or our tipline or Bridgeton police and get us that information," she said.
The last images of Dulce were captured by a surveillance camera hours before she vanished. She can be seen getting ice cream with her brother, mother and Aunt Camila.
Dulce was last seen wearing a yellow shirt with a picture of an elephant, black and white pants and white shoes.
With no cameras keeping an eye on the area where Dulce was last seen, investigators were left with very few clues.
Bridgeton police initially said the person in the sketch was reportedly in the park with one or two young children.
Alavez-Perez says she recalls seeing two kids at the park in addition to those playing basketball before her daughter went missing, but it's unclear if she caught a glimpse of her daughter's kidnapper.
"I saw two kids the same age as my daughter and son coming out, they were holding hands, but I didn't saw no grown up with them. They just went around the park and then I saw girls at the basketball court, and that's it," she says.
According to Gaimari, some people that resembled the man in the sketch have been brought in for questioning, but they were later released.
When asked if authorities have identified a person of interest, Gaimari says, "No, not specifically."
Alavez-Perez, who gave birth to another baby girl, Estrella, earlier this year, was pregnant with Dulce at a very young age. It was one of the main reasons why Dulce was in the custody of her grandmother.
Dulce's father, who lives in Mexico, was questioned during the investigation and authorities have not officially ruled him out, though there were reports that he was in college in Mexico the day Dulce went missing.
Alavez-Perez confirms that there was a custody issue prior to Dulce's disappearance, but she doesn't suspect he's involved and says she hasn't talked to him in over a year.
"No one is cleared in this investigation until we determine the circumstances that led to Dulce's disappearance. I can say that the family has been cooperative up until this time, but I'm not going to rule out or rule in any possibility until we find Dulce, or the circumstances that led to her disappearance," said Webb-McRae.
As the investigation stretched into days, and days then turned into weeks, Alavez-Perez was under the microscope of the world.
She has a quiet demeanor and has stood in front of the podium many times showing little to no emotion.
Some would call it a "mother in shock," others would suggest "guilt." The soft-spoken Alavez-Perez has stated publicly that she doesn't get emotional, nor would she be seen crying in front of people. Still, the public didn't seem to buy it.
READ MORE: Mother of missing NJ girl Dulce Marie Alavez tells Dr. Phil she suspects 'old friend' took her daughter
"That really affected me when I saw all the comments saying 'I sold her,' 'I killed her' that I know where she is, that really affected me," Alavez-Perez told Action News. "I've seen a lot of cases where mothers do that to their kids, but I love my daughter a lot and she knows that."
Jackie Rodriguez, a former spokesperson who no longer works with the family on the case, even spoke about the topic on the Dr. Phil Show last year.
"(She) seems too calm. She knows that that child is ok. She's missing her, but I think she knows that the child is ok," Rodriguez told Dr. Phil in December.
Rodriguez still stands by those statements.
"She might know something. She could be scared and she can be protecting her daughter in some kind of way," said Rodriguez.
'We do not care about their immigration status'
Investigators have repeatedly pleaded for help from Bridgeton's Hispanic community, especially to the people in town who may be living in the country illegally.
"We do not care about their immigration status. They should not feel fearful of coming forward because they are undocumented," said Webb-McRae.
Rodriguez, who helped the family with media coverage and searches, said at times she felt the community could be withholding information due to immigration concerns.
In fact, Alavez-Perez's own boyfriend was detained briefly by ICE early in the investigation. Rodriguez says it scared some people in the community. Police were unable to elaborate further on what happened.
"In past searches, I've spoken to several people that have said that the City of Bridgeton are afraid to speak. A lot of people think that because they're illegal here, they think that their immigration status is going to get looked into. Someone out there knows something, you know, she was taken from daylight from a very well-known park where you have a high school, you have a baseball field, you have a zoo feet away," said Rodriguez.
Running toward the building
People on the basketball court and Dulce's brother were likely some of the only people to see the suspect before Dulce was taken. The playground and basketball court is in a remote area of the park and the FBI believes the kidnapper centered in on the child from behind nearby buildings.
In the 911 call, Alavez-Perez, while fighting through tears, can be heard recounting the abduction saying, "They said that somebody threw his ice cream on the floor and my daughter just ran away."
READ MORE: 'I can't find my daughter': 911 call released in search for Dulce Maria Alavez
Alavez-Perez first thought her daughter was playing hide and seek but then realized it was way more serious. She claims the people on the court saw Dulce running toward a building near the playground and someone taking her daughter. When Alavez-Perez asked her son where Dulce was, he pointed to the buildings near the playground.
TIMELINE: The search for 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez
"When I got there I asked him, 'Where's your sister?' and he just pointed behind the buildings. And I went behind it and I couldn't find her," recalled Alavez-Perez, who says that her daughter would never go with a stranger.
"One thing I know is that Dulce wouldn't go up to a stranger, or talk to a stranger," she says
On the Dr. Phil show, Alavez-Perez talked about a possible suspect, or a strange encounter she had prior to Dulce's disappearance.
The talk show host asked Alavez-Perez if Dulce may have known her abductor. She said she wasn't sure.
When she was pressed again about who may have taken Dulce, Alavez-Perez mentioned that an "old friend" confronted her a few times before her daughter's disappearance.
"Last time he saw me, me and my daughter together, and he just waved at me and said 'Hi,' and he asked me if that was my daughter, and I said 'Yes,'" she said.
"He was trying to date you and you rejected him?" Dr. Phil asked.
"Yes," she said.
Alavez-Perez told sister station WPVI-TV that this person was one of the last people to see her daughter, but she doesn't suspect him. She says she was only answering Dr. Phil's questions, which is why she mentioned the man.
The investigation is like a puzzle
With very few clues to go on, investigators have been trying to put this missing child case together like a puzzle. Yet they don't know how many pieces are in the box, nor what the final image will reveal.
"They have some solid leads and they've pursued them and they are continuing to pursue those solid leads," said Gaimari.
Investigators have even traveled out of state frequently. Gaimari tells Action News that just last month, his detectives traveled out of state to investigate a possible lead in the case, though, to protect the investigation, he was unable to share anything further.
"The country is on alert. I can't even tell you that there's a state that we haven't received a tip from... The detectives felt strongly enough out of state, most recently, to check a couple of tips out," he said.
Garrabrant says several leads come in every week, "We get a lot of look-alike tips and we get a lot of behavioral tips where someone will say something just doesn't seem right about this person."
A working theory is that Dulce may not even be in the Bridgeton area anymore.
"I do remain hopeful that she's alive and I am practical in understanding that the possibility and the probability is that she's not in our community anymore. So, we need the public across the nation and into Mexico keeping open the possibility that it could be International, other than Mexico, to be on the lookout for Dulce," said Webb-McRae.
Once the pandemic hit, the investigative practices had to change. There were no more face-to-face briefings, no traveling out of state and the courts were closed.
"COVID kind of put a damper on things, investigative wise, because everybody is social distancing and you don't want to put peoples' lives in danger," said Gaimari.
But Dulce's case remains very active in a virtual way. Tips are still pouring in.
"I can tell you that we appreciate the public assistance and help. Throughout this investigation, we've received over 1,000 tips. We've garnered video from various businesses and in the area and around the area of where Dulce disappeared. I feel very strongly that this is like a puzzle and we need that one piece of information to put this puzzle together," she says.
In addition to the thousands of tips and alleged Dulce sightings, police say psychics came forward and three cryptic letters started popping up in the Ohio area; one at a racetrack/casino; one at a library; and another at an ice cream shop, according to NJ.com.
Rodriguez says she became spooked after she received a letter in South Jersey sometime in March. She said she received random scribblings on pieces of paper sent to her P.O. Box ... the only thing was, there was no address assigned to the envelope. When Rodriguez asked the post office about it, she says the worker looked up the name and was able to find the closest P.O. box addressed on to the name on the envelope. The notes on the letter had random words like, "Mexico," "1776," "campground."
No evidence of Dulce has been found in Ohio and police say the psychic tips have not produced any leads in this case.
Rodriguez said the letters sidelined her for a while and ultimately forced her to step away from the case.
A crime of opportunity?
In a recent interview with NJ.com, Garrabrant stated that Dulce may not have been the target and it may have been a random crime of opportunity.
Both Webb-McRae and Gaimari have stressed that all possible theories are still on the table.
"Until we charge and prosecute who is responsible for the disappearance of Dulce Maria Alavez, all possible motives and theories are on the table. So yes, this could have been a crime of opportunity, or this could have been, you know, a situation where, where it's someone who knew Dulce, we can't say that for sure," she said.
"Is it a strong possibility? I can't say that," said Gaimari of a possible crime of opportunity. "I feel the avenues that investigators have pursued all along are stronger, but it is always a possibility that for some odd reason there is a person who likes to abduct children."
Garrabrant, too, says all possibilities are on the table, but it's likely the suspect did not particularly know the child.
"We are looking at it as a crime of opportunity but we are investigating all possibilities. And right now, the strongest avenue would be to say it's a crime of opportunity where the offender happened to be in that area and Dulce happened to cross their path at an inopportune time," he said.
One thing is for sure, according to Gaimari, the community is still withholding information.
"I can say that we still firmly believe that there are people in the public that have information that they're not sharing with us," he said.
Never giving up hope
As the case enters a year, authorities want the public to know that every possible tip is being investigated and that no stone is being left unturned. In cases such as these, investigators say it's often that one tiny tip that could break this thing wide open.
And it's important not to give up hope.
Hope is what sits inside the minds of investigators combing through evidence as the months go by. Hope is what fuels them to wake up and one day find and prosecute the suspect responsible.
Hope is the internal fire that helps detectives and family members believe that Dulce is still alive.
"In the absence of evidence indicating that Dulce is deceased, we hold out hope that Dulce is alive," said McRae. "I think about her virtually every single day and the investigators that are working on this case do as well."
"Our primary interest is bringing Dulce Alavez home and identifying the person who took her. We don't believe we can do that by ourselves, we need the community's help for that," added Garrabrant.
Hope is everything for a South Jersey mother who lost her child in the blink of an eye while she wasn't looking. And it is hope that spawns the strength and courage for this mother to trust that Dulce will once return to her arms again.
"I love her and I miss her a lot, I want her to come home. I want her to be a part of my life again," said Alavez-Perez.
How you can help
Anyone with any information can call the Bridgeton Police Department at 856-451-0033.
You can also report anonymous tips to the Cumberland County Prosecutor's Office by clicking here.
You can also call the FBI's Toll-Free Tipline at 1-800-CALL-FBI (1-800-225-5324) and select option 4, then select option 8, or submit an anonymous tip to the agency online.
If you speak Spanish you can call 856-207-2732.
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