What to Know
Dulce María Alavez, 5, disappeared about 4 p.m. Sept. 16 while playing in a rural South Jersey park.
The girl's mother, Noema Alavez, told NBC10 on Tuesday that Dulce's father, Edgar Perez, has been contacted in Mexico by the FBI.
The FBI is now helping with the investigation and is asking anyone with any detail that could lead to the girl to call 1-800-CALL-FBI.
Dulce María Alavez's little brother, the last person to see the missing girl, has told police he saw a man "waving his hand, like 'come over here,'" according to Dulce's mother.
Dulce disappeared without a trace, with police unable to find even the 5-year-old's ice cream cup or spoon, her mother, Noema Alavez told NBC10 on Tuesday, eight days since she vanished from a park in rural southern New Jersey.
She is now on top of the FBI's list of priorities as the search for the missing Bridgeton, New Jersey, girl entered its ninth day.
New clues, at least those investigators acknowledge publicly, have run dry in recent days, but the FBI hopes that adding the 5-year-old to its "Most Wanted" list for kidnapping victims could spark new tips nationwide.
The mother's comments to an NBC10 reporter were the woman's first words publicly in nearly a week.
Noema Alavez also said she has been told Dulce's father was contacted by the FBI in Mexico — where he is believed to be living — in recent days. Police confirmed that the FBI has spoken with Dulce's father.
She said she never had a relationship with Dulce's father, who she identified as Edgar Perez, and that he didn't believe that Dulce was his daughter when she was born five years ago.
But he realized after seeing Dulce, Noema Alavez said, that believed her to be his daughter because of a strong resemblance. He never played a role in Dulce's life, the mother said, but recently announced his plan to fight for custody.
The leading theory behind her disappearance on the afternoon of Sept. 16 is that she was kidnapped by a man as she played at Bridgeton City Park around 4 p.m., authorities have said.
Police have continued to pull over any red vans they see in the area, as one lead has been that a man led Alavez from the playground to a red van with a sliding side door and tinted windows.
Dulce and her family live in Bridgeton, a small Latino-majority city of 25,000 surrounded by one of the most rural areas of the state. It's the seat of Cumberland County, which is the leading producer of vegetables, potatoes, melons, flowers and sod in the state.
A third of Bridgeton's residents live in poverty and nearly three in 10 lack health care insurance. It is 51-percent Latino, according to U.S. Census figures, but some locals believe it could be as much as 70-80% Latino.
The girl's family held vigils over the weekend after a huge search party combed the park and surrounding neighborhood to no avail Friday.
Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae has asked that the community continue to send in tips.
"At this point in the investigation, we continue to consider all possibilities. We remain hopeful that we're going to find Dulce alive," Webb-McRae said, adding that authorities are seeking to speak with the little girl's father.
Dulce's mother reported her missing from the park. Dulce's father is believed to be in Mexico, police initially said, but his exact location remains unknown and authorities have not said in recent days if he has been in contact.
Much of the Latino community in Bridgeton is on edge because of worry for the missing girl and the huge police presence in the town.
"I'm not sure there's ever been so many police officers in Bridgeton," Deacon Arnaldo Santos of Holy Cross Parish said Monday.
Santos, a retired Bridgeton police officer who was the city's first Latino cop when he joined the force in the early 1990s, said Dulce's family on both her mother's and father's sides have received support from the area's largely Catholic immigrant community.
"We're giving moral support and prayer, having vigils and praying the rosary," Santos said. "They know the doors of the church are open to them."
Still, many in the Latino community are afraid because of the increased police presence, he said.
Last week, an official with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed to NBC10 that Dulce's mother's boyfriend, who is not the girl's biological father, had been detained by ICE and then released.
The boyfriend, a 27-year-old Mexican citizen, "is part of an ongoing investigation by local, state and federal law enforcement partners and ICE cannot comment further," ICE spokesman Adrian Smith said in a statement last week, refusing to confirm whether the investigation into the boyfriend involves Alavez's disappearance.
Smith said in another statement Tuesday that undocumented residents of Bridgeton did not have to fear ICE agents related to the ongoing search for Dulce.
"ICE does not target witnesses. ICE encourages undocumented immigrants to cooperate with local, state, and federal authorities without fear of reprisal. ICE’s enforcement actions are targeted and lead driven," Smith said in an email. "ICE conducts targeted immigration enforcement in compliance with federal law and agency policy. All enforcement activities are conducted with the same level of professionalism and respect that ICE officers exhibit every day."
In one of the more somber moments of the weeklong search, the Dulce's grandmother, Norma Pérez, implored members of the Cumberland County community to tell investigators any details they may know about the disappearance of her granddaughter.
"Please, if you know something that will help us find my granddaughter, don't be afraid of the police," Norma Pérez said at a news conference, alluding to fears by some in the largely Mexican immigrant community that coming forward may lead to problems with ICE agents.
At the time of her disappearance, Alavez wore a yellow shirt, black and white checkered pants with a flower design and white dress sandals. She has dark brown hair that was tied into a ponytail, police said. Alavez stands around 3 feet, 5 inches tall.
Police said Alavez was taken by a light-skinned male who appeared to be between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-8 inches tall with a thin build. He was clean-shaven and had acne on his face. The suspect wore orange sneakers (possibly Nike), red pants and a black T-shirt.
Police obtained surveillance video from a nearby gas station of Alavez inside a convenience store with her siblings about 20 minutes before her disappearance.
"We don't have any solid suspects," Gaimari said earlier in the week. "We have video surveillance that we've gathered from all of this area."
Alavez arrived to the Bridgeton City Park with her mother, 3-year-old brother and 8-year-old aunt Monday afternoon, Chief Gaimari said.
Her mother, Noema Alavez Pérez, let the younger children run out of the car toward a playground area while she and the other child remained in the car, according to police.
Each child had an ice cream in hand as they ran toward the playground, Alavez Pérez said.
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.
"I thought she was just playing hide-and-seek, that she was playing in the woods," Alavez Pérez said.
The mother called family members and they began to search the park and playground area. Afraid that someone had taken her daughter, Alavez Pérez called police around 4:50 p.m. Officers immediately began to search for the girl.
"I'm begging whoever has her to bring her back," Alavez's grandmother said. "She's innocent. She's little. I don't know why they did this."
Dulce attends Buckshutem Elementary in the Bridgeton School District and lives with her grandmother, who is her legal guardian.
The police chief said investigators believe the little girl's father is in Mexico.
"They're making attempts to locate him now," Chief Gaimari said of family and investigators.
Alavez Pérez's family members told NBC10 that her daughter's disappearance and the investigation have taken a toll on Dulce's mother.
"She's doing really bad," Nayiber Alavez Pérez, Dulce's aunt, said. "I know most people think she's the one who did it to her or something but I mean, the cops already investigated everything to her."