BRIDGETON, N.J. (CBS) — It’s the case that gripped our region. Next Wednesday will mark one year since 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez disappeared from a South Jersey park.
Since that day, there have been few leads, but authorities have vowed to crack this tragic mystery.
There are still flyers in Bridgeton city storefronts, but not as many as there had been back before signs about masks were necessary and before nearly a year had gone by since Dulce disappeared.
“I, as a parent and as a grandparent, think about Dulce virtually daily,” Cumberland County Prosecutor Jeffiner Webb-McRae said.
Dulce went missing from the Bridgeton City Park on the afternoon of Sept. 16 just after stopping for ice cream at a nearby Sunoco.
There have been several different tributes to Dulce in the past year, including one that remains positioned midway between where Dulce and her 3-year-old brother played on the playground and the spot where her mom Noema, then 19, was parked.
Noema Alavez Perez told police that she was unable to see her children from where she sat in the car with her 8-year-old sister, scratching off lottery tickets, but that when she exited the vehicle minutes later, 3-year-old Manny was alone and crying.
Perez called her brother and then police.
“We were with her at the park and people say that someone probably took her,” Perez said.
The 911 call launched a massive search and an Amber Alert based on a child witness description of a man in a red van.
Webb-McRae says every red van in the area has been investigated.
“I’m not willing to discount it but I’m still asking the public to still keep an open mind and report anything that they can remember, anything that seems suspicious at this time a sighting,” she said.
A month later, a suspect description was fine-tuned. Investigators still believe a sketch of a Hispanic man age 30 to 35, around 5-foot-7 with a slender build, is valid.
“The offender is likely from there, have friends or family there, have friends or family there was familiar with the area or may have employment there and that’s why they were in the area,” FBI Special Agent Daniel Garrabrant said.
Garrabrant says they are also combing through additional surveillance video from around the park.
“The thing we have learned from a lot of these cases, just because time has gone by doesn’t mean you’re going to not have a successful conclusion to the case,” Garrabrant said.
As for the pandemic, local and federal authorities say it did not interrupt the tempo of this investigation, and while some had cast suspicion on Dulce’s family — namely her mother — investigators say that suspicion is without merit.
“The family continues to be very cooperative as they all have been since the beginning,” Garrabrant said.
The beginning feels like more than a year ago. Since Dulce disappeared, Perez gave birth to a new sibling. The world at large has changed, the picture in the flyers around town though has not.
“This is going to remain an open investigation until we find out the circumstances leading to her disappearance,” Webb-McRae said.
Detectives are asking anyone who may have any information on Dulce’s whereabouts or information n the man in the sketch to call the Bridgeton Police Department. Tips can be submitted anonymously.