It has been one year since Dulce María Alavez vanished from a South Jersey park, setting off massive manhunts and striking pain in the heart of her family, but even now investigators believe the girl, then 5, is still alive.
Dulce disappeared from a park in Bridgeton, New Jersey, a small Latino-majority city surrounded by one of the most rural areas of the state, Sept. 16 of last year. Investigators believe she was abducted, but they and her family are still holding out hope that they may find her safe.
“If she was deceased, something would turn out somewhere,” Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae told NBC10.
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Authorities believe Dulce was abducted as she played with her 3-year-old brother and her 8-year-old niece. Her mother, Noema Alavez Pérez, had been watching the kids from a car when the suspected kidnapper struck.
Each child had an ice cream in hand as they ran toward the playground, Alavez Pérez told NBC10 last year.
About 10 minutes later, the mother saw the 3-year-old boy upset and crying, his ice cream on the ground and his sister nowhere to be found. The boy pointed behind some buildings saying his sister went that way, Alavez Pérez said, adding that she initially thought the girl was playing hide-and-seek.
However, Dulce never turned up despite massive multi-agency and community-led searches.
“No, I haven’t given up faith, but it’s been really difficult for my family to know that Dulce is still not home. Everything changed in our family,” Alavez Pérez said.
Investigators think Dulce may have been taken by a man who had been near the park on the day of her disappearance, and they believe he may have driven off in a red van.
“The offender that took Dulce was likely there for a period of time. It was a crime of opportunity. They were looking for a child, maybe their age or gender,” said Federal Bureau of Investigations special agent Daniel Garrabrant.
The search for the girl has not ceased and has spanned from western states all the way to Mexico, where the FBI said Dulce’s father resides and has been cooperating with authorities.
Bridgeton City Police Department Chief Michael Gaimari said that the COVID-19 pandemic has impeded some of the work involved in the investigation, but he maintained that authorities are still following “solid” leads.
Similarly, Garrabrant has not given up hope that Dulce will be found alive sooner or later.
“We have long-term abduction cases where children have been recovered many years after their abduction,” he said.
But for Alavez Pérez, every day that goes by without her daughter is agonizing.
Life has changed for the mother in the last year. She gave birth to another daughter in February, which at once brings joy but also sadness knowing that Dulce would have loved a little sister.
On the anniversary of Dulce’s disappearance Alavez Pérez looked on at a memorial adorned with pictures and messages for her daughter, and she implored people to continue coming forward with information.
“I want her to be home with us,” she said.