Investigators searching for a little girl who disappeared from a Bridgeton park more than 11 months ago believe she was likely abducted by someone looking for an opportunity to take a child.
They also believe surveillance videos harvested from the area could show the abductor’s vehicle.
Dulce Maria Alavez was 5 when she vanished during a family outing to Bridgeton City Park on the afternoon of Sept. 16, 2019.
Her mother had taken her kids to the park and remained in the car while Dulce and her 3-year-old brother, Manuel, ran to a playground 30 yards away. Minutes later, Dulce’s mother said she walked to the playground and found only Manuel. Dulce was gone.
The FBI quickly joined the investigation and an Amber alert was issued. While authorities have been reluctant to share many details, a lead investigator on the case recently shed new light on what may have happened during an interview with NJ Advance Media as the anniversary of her disappearance approaches.
“If you are looking for a child to take the child, you go where children are,” said FBI special agent Daniel Garrabrant. “That’s one of the reasons that we believe that the target was a child, but it may not necessarily have been Dulce. We’ve had cases like this across the country where offenders go to places where children are and they would have access to children and they wait for the opportunity.
“In this case, it was broad daylight, mom being distracted for a short period of time and Dulce and her brother being far enough away, that the offender felt like it was an opportunity for him to take Dulce and leave with her and that’s what he did.”
Dulce’s mother, Noema Alavez Perez, told police she remained in her car checking a scratch-off lottery ticket and helping her 8-year-old sister with homework. The sister noticed she could no longer see the kids at the playground, prompting them to go check on the children.
The playground is located next to a few storage buildings and the abductor could have parked along the street on the other side of those buildings and waited, the agent said.
“The person’s intent might not have been to take a kid,” according to Garrabrant, an East Coast leader for the FBI’s Child Abduction Rapid Deployment Team. “It could have been maybe to watch children because that’s what they liked, and the opportunity presented itself and they did what they did.”
Investigators and family members cling to the hope that Dulce is alive.
Nothing has been discovered to suggest otherwise, Garrabrant said. No physical remains have been found and searchers have combed the immediate area around the park. A hunting season has come and gone and nothing has been discovered in fields and woodlands surrounding Bridgeton, he added.
“I’m working under the premise and the assumption that she’s still alive,” he said.
Description of a suspect
The park was a popular spot on the warm September afternoon when Dulce vanished. About two dozen people were playing basketball nearby. Witnesses confirmed seeing kids at the playground.
From there, two descriptions emerged of what police believe is the same person — a Hispanic man about 5 feet 8 inches tall and about 30 to 35 years old, with acne and no facial hair. In one description, he was allegedly seen ushering a girl into a red van. However, Garrabrant said the vehicle information may not be accurate.
“We have literally gotten thousands and thousands of red van leads. None of them have panned out to date.”
While the playground does not have cameras, agents have spent thousands of hours scrutinizing gigabytes of surveillance video from homes and buildings in the immediate area around the park in search of a suspect vehicle.
Garrabrant said they’ve ruled out every vehicle on camera except for about 10 to 12 because of a lack of a visible license plate or too general of a description. Some of the video isn’t very clear.
It’s not possible to get out of the park without being picked up on a nearby camera, he noted.
“We believe that, in all likelihood, we do have a suspect vehicle on video someplace.”
Why was Dulce taken?
A motive in the case is unclear, Garrabrant said.
He stressed that Dulce’s family members remain cooperative, but declined to say anyone has been ruled out as a suspect.
“Sometimes the family becomes a point of focus, but throughout the investigation to date, they continue to be cooperative and engaged and it’s important that the community knows that,” he said.
In an interview with NJ Advance Media last September, Alavez Perez said Dulce’s father, who now lives in Mexico, expressed an interest in seeking custody of the child when she was 1 or 2 years old, but never followed through on it.
Investigators have found no evidence of a custody dispute between Dulce’s parents, Garrabrant said. The father has been interviewed by investigators and has also been cooperative, he said.
Investigators can usually track efforts by family to take a child out of the country, including through searches of phone records leading up to a disappearance, Garrabrant said.
“When we have kids that are taken by a family member out of the country, we generally have a pretty strong indication that that occurred,” he said. “Think about it, if a family member was going to plan this and take Dulce, it’s super high-risk because it’s in a public park where there could be potentially a lot of witnesses.”
What about those Ohio letters?
Investigators have chased thousands of tips, including the discovery of several letters received in Ohio earlier this year referencing Dulce. One suggested searching a wooded area near a truck stop. A search turned up nothing. A similar mailing, postmarked from Ohio, was received in New Jersey by Jackie Rodriguez, who had been acting as a spokeswoman for Dulce’s family. It contained no direct reference to Dulce.
“A considerable amount of time has been spent on those letters and none of the information in there has been corroborated,” Garrabrant said, adding that investigation of the letters is ongoing and that they likely originated from the same sender.
Dulce’s case has drawn widespread interest and questions have been raised over a possible connection with the discovery of a child’s remains in a park in Smyrna, Delaware — more than an hour from Bridgeton — a few days before Dulce vanished. But Garrabrant said nothing points to a link between the two cases.
The girl was between 2 and 5 years old, suffered from a chronic illness, was Caucasian or Hispanic, and had been dead for “several weeks or possibly longer,” according to a statement from Smyrna police.
“We are working with the Smyrna Police Department,” he said. “Whether the cases are related or not, which there is no indication to say they are, certainly that case is concerning because it was a little girl whose body was found and has not been identified yet.”
You may know who took her
Someone knows who took Dulce, though they may not realize it, the agent said.
He asked members of the public to consider people they know who changed their behavior or habits around the time Dulce disappeared.
The abductor would have missed work or family get-togethers around that time or may have suddenly left town without warning, Garrabrant said. He may have changed the color of his car or made a significant change to his appearance.
The suspect might be a regular visitor to parks and behave awkwardly around children, he added.
“I honestly think there are people out there that know who the offender is, interact with the offender and might even describe them as socially awkward or odd, but may be afraid to say anything because they think, ‘Oh, this person would never take a child.’”
Investigators believe the abductor likely acted alone and for a self-serving purpose.
Really young kids, even infants, may be taken by someone looking to replace a child who was somehow lost, Garrabrant said, while a sexual motive is often a factor in cases involving abducted teens.
“Our younger kids, it’s less clear,” he said. “The age that Dulce was, it’s less clear why the offender would have taken her. What need were they fulfilling by taking her? We’re not sure.”
Investigators are still looking for people who may have seen something suspicious. The park is adjacent to two schools and kids often cut through the area on the way to and from classes, Garrabrant said, meaning a student may have information without realizing it.
“What we know for sure is that the person that took Dulce Alavez was in that park in Bridgeton from at least 4 o’clock to 4:30,” Garrabrant said. “We really believe that there are people out there that saw something that would be critical for us.”
Witnesses may not step forward because they don’t believe they have information of value or because they are afraid, he said. Officials have repeatedly assured undocumented immigrants living in the area that no one investigating Dulce’s disappearance is interested in checking their immigration status.
How to help find Dulce
Dulce turned 6 years old in April and her case will likely receive renewed public attention on the one-year anniversary of her disappearance.
The search remains active locally, nationally and internationally, Garrabrant said.
“I think a lot of times when cases stretch out for long periods of time, the community may think that it’s not still being worked, and it is,” he said. “It’s actually a very active investigation.
Authorities ask anyone with information about Dulce to call New Jersey State Police at 609-882-2000, ext. 2554, or Bridgeton police at 856-451-0033. Tips may also be phoned in to 1-800-CALL-FBI and select option 4, then select option 8. Anonymous tips may be sent by text to TIP411 with “Bridgeton” in the message line.
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