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.
Police have released a sketch of a person police are seeking as a possible witness in the disappearance of Dulce María Alavez, who vanished from a park in rural southern New Jersey Sept. 16.
It's the biggest development in the befuddling case in weeks.
"We are releasing a composite sketch of an individual who has been reported to have been seen in the park around the time Dulce went missing," Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McCrae said. "This individual has been reported to have been with one or two children under the age of 5 years old."
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Dulce María is on the FBI's Most Wanted list for kidnapping victims, and federal agents have spoken with the child's father, who lives in Mexico.
She disappeared without a trace one month ago, with police unable to find even the 5-year-old's ice cream cup or spoon, her mother, Noema Alavez Pérez told NBC10 last month.
Dulce María'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 Alavez Pérez.
New clues, at least those investigators acknowledge publicly, have run dry in recent weeks, but the FBI hopes that adding the 5-year-old to its "Most Wanted" list for kidnapping victims could spark new tips nationwide.
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.
In the first weeks of her disappearance, police pulled over red vans they saw in the area, as one lead has been that a man led Dulce María 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 continued to ask 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 last month.
Dulce María's mother reported her missing from the park.
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 told NBC10 in September.
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 María'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.
In one of the more somber moments of the now monthlong 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, Dulce María 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 Dulce María 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 Dulce María inside a convenience store with her siblings about 20 minutes before her disappearance.
Dulce María arrived to the Bridgeton City Park with her mother, 3-year-old brother and 8-year-old aunt.
Her mother said she let the younger children run out of the car toward a playground area while she and the other child remained in the car.
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 María attends Buckshutem Elementary in the Bridgeton School District and lives with her grandmother, who is her legal guardian.