On September 16, 2019, 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez vanished while playing on the swing set with her brother at the playground in Bridgeton, New Jersey. Her mother was not 30 yards away in the car when her brother returned to the car, crying, unsure of where his sister went.
Over 100 police officers were a part of the search, but they turned up nothing. A suspect has been described as a Hispanic male between 5'6" and 5'8" driving a red van, but no strong suspects have emerged. Dulce's mother has received various strange letters since her daughter's disappearance.
September 16th, 2019 was just a normal day. Noema Perez took Dulce, her 3-year-old younger brother, and her 8-year-old cousin to get ice cream in the neighborhood. Then, at around 4 PM, they went to the Bridgeton City Park. Dulce and her brother excitedly took off toward the playground while Noema and the 8-year-old child stayed in the car about 30 yards away.
But soon, it shifted into every parent's worst nightmare. Dulce's brother came to her, crying. When she asked where his sister was, he pointed far off, toward a cluster of buildings near the park. She looked, frantically, and called family to come help her look. Then she called the police.
"She called me sobbing, I could hardly understand her but she said Dulce is missing, the police are looking for her, come to the park right now," Norma Perez, Noema's mother recalled. A person of interest was identified quickly by a description.
The police believed that while she was playing on the swing set, she was lured into a red van with sliding passenger doors. But besides that, there is little evidence as to what happened.
Residents of Bridgeton rallied together for the child. Local businesses donated money for a reward. A local restaurant owner flew his drone over the entire park looking for clues. A candlelight vigil was held in the park. Dulce is on the FBI's list of most high-profile kidnappings.
Now in Bridgeton, where there once was comfort letting kids run around, there is fear. A mother refusing to let her teen daughter walk alone, a father barricading his front porch to stop his daughter from wandering away. The kidnapping of a 5-year-old girl in broad daylight, 30 yards away from her mother, has everyone deeply on edge.
According to neighbors, Dulce was a playful child who was always smiling. She loved playing with her little brother, and would often bug her older cousins to put Peppa Pig on on YouTube. "She is such a happy kid," her 16-year-old cousin Jose said.
Noema spends most of her time at home, or praying at the local church for her daughter's return. She has been criticized online for her fitness as a parent for allowing her child to be abducted on her watch. She also was seen taking a break to grab a slice of pizza during a search for her daughter, which is the most bananas reason I've ever heard to think someone doesn't care about their child. She was 5 months pregnant at the time Dulce went missing, just to further add to the distress.
BRIDGETON, NEW JERSEY
Most of the older residents of Bridgeton emigrated from Mexico around 20 years ago, including Dulce's grandparents. Because the town had ample work due to the surrounding farms and factories, many moved straight to Bridgeton to begin their lives in America. Quickly, it became an immigrant enclave. Abandoned buildings were adorned with Spanish-language signs for new businesses. Convenience stores sprang up, and their town was very reminiscent of towns in their native Mexico.
The children grew up in an atmosphere their parents knew from back home. The kids played freely after school, and adults chatted on the porches.
But because some of the Bridgeton immigrants have stayed in the country illegally, New Jersey's attorney general Gurbir Grewal has concerns that residents may have been reluctant to come forward due to their immigration status, in fear that it would put them on ICE's radar.
Despite a spokesman for ICE saying, "ICE does not target witnesses. ICE encourages undocumented immigrants to cooperate with local, state and federal authorities without fear of reprisal," Dulce's mother's boyfriend, a Mexican citizen, was arrested by ICE after the disappearance, which only amplified concerns.
Residents have concerns that, though the community had evaded immigration enforcement in the previous years, that Dulce's disappearance would lead to increased enforcement in the town.
About 5 months after Dulce disappeared, letters were sent to 2 different businesses and a library in Ohio referencing the missing child.
A tip was written down on an index card and mailed to a race track and a casino in Austintown Township, Ohio, that prompted a search of a wooded area with dogs and drones. But nothing was found. Additionally, Jackie Rodriguez, a spokesperson for Dulce's family, said that she had received a letter from Cleveland, Ohio that contained 7 flips of paper with scribbled phrases, but nothing specifically about Dulce.
The handwriting was barely legible, but she could make out "Alaska", "Mexico", "border", "1776", "civil war" and "kids homes orphanage". She turned the letters over to the police. Naturally, Rodriguez was a bit concerned because she was mailed directly, which could be threatening to her family. She believes they should be taken seriously until proven otherwise, and believes that even if they are fake, someone should be held accountable.
Police believe that the handwriting on all of the letters appears similar, but they did not go through a formal handwriting analysis.
One theory that is pretty sad, and that I don't agree with, is that her mother was somehow involved in the kidnapping. Because she was so close when she went missing, and apparently because she has shown a lack of emotion while the cameras were, some believe that she was involved, or at the very least, suspicious.
I'm not sold on this in the slightest. It seems like the community that she lived in was extremely comfortable with one another, and children playing without direct supervision was common. Additionally, some have mentioned that English is not her first language, so it is a bit more difficult to determine her emotional state when she speaks. She has spent most of her time praying since her child went missing, and the police have asked that she stop being harassed because she is not a suspect in the case. This doesn't mean that people won't continue to believe she is suspicious, but I'm not sold.
Additionally, not to place blame on a mourning mother, but she was 19 years old when Dulce went missing, meaning she had her when she was 13 or 14 years old. She was a teen mother to 2 children, and it seemed like she was used to leaning on her mother, who helped raise Dulce, and others in the community. It doesn't seem that unreasonable that she just wasn't paying attention. She will likely never forgive herself for it.
Another theory is that Dulce's father was somehow involved. He was in Mexico at the time, but the time of year she was abducted is when the harvest is ending and so migrant workers go back to Mexico. In that case, the timing would be lined up for someone to have taken her back to her father. Based on the limited information, it doesn't seem like Dulce's father had a lot of contact with her so it doesn't seem super likely that he would organize a traumatic abduction for his child's mother so she could be transported back to Mexico with him.
Though it isn't always the theory that makes the most sense, here, I think it does. I think she was just snatched. Perhaps by somebody who had been watching her for some time, or perhaps by somebody who saw an unattended child and took the opportunity. Stranger abductions are fairly rare, but not impossible.
In this case, in my opinion, nothing else makes sense. Her mother was 19, with 3 children from 3 different fathers starting when she was 13 years old. Her father had either chosen to go back to Mexico or was deported, and had little to no contact with Dulce. Do either of these people seem to have motive to kidnap or kill a child? Would they have the means?
I think someone took advantage of Noema. She was overwhelmed and likely not exhibiting the best parental practices at the time. Someone spotted a child, unattended, and took their opportunity. Again, pretty uncommon, but not impossible. And extremely sad and scary to think about.
If Dulce was kidnapped by a stranger, we can't even imagine their intentions with a 5-year-old child. Did he want to assault her? Kill her? Sell her? In the least horrific way possible, part of me hopes that she passed away. The thought of a 5-year-old child being sold into sex trafficking is beyond what my heart can comprehend. At least if this is the case, there is still hope that one day she would find her way home. But wherever she is, I genuinely hope she is not in pain.
I wish so much peace for her mother who is now coming up on 1 year without her daughter. A year of being blamed for her daughter's disappearance, either directly or indirectly. Likely replaying that day every single day, knowing if she had done something differently, her daughter would still be with her. As we hit 1 year without Dulce, I hope she is learning to forgive herself.
Anyone with information on the whereabouts of Dulce Maria Alavez is urged to call the New Jersey State Police Missing Persons Unit at 609-882-2000 ext. 2554 or the Bridgeton Police at 856-451-0033.