Despite receiving more than 1,000 tips from around the country, investigating more than 500 vehicles, searching more than 200 locations and checking in with sex offenders throughout Cumberland County, authorities said Friday that the search for a missing 5-year-old New Jersey girl has borne no fruit.
As the search for Dulce María Alavez neared the end of its third week, county prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae also acknowledged that one of the key leads that police have been chasing -- that the girl was taken by a man in a red van -- could be wrong.
"I am not wed to the red vehicle. The witness that gave us that information is a child of tender years," Webb-McRae said, adding that people should still not discount the possibility of a red van.
The van has played a key role in the search for the child since her Sept. 16 disappearance from Bridgeton City Park. However, Webb-McRae would not confirm that the description came from Dulce María's 3-year-old brother, even though the children were playing together when the girl went missing.
Since the disappearance, more than 300 federal, state and local officers have searched for the girl by land, sea and air and have served more than 50 legal processes, including court orders and subpoenas, Webb-McRae said. They've also expanded the search beyond the state of New Jersey and added the girl to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's "Most Wanted" list of kidnapping victims in hopes that they will find her alive.
"In the absence of physical evidence indicating that Dulce has been physically harmed, we remain hopeful and continue to act under the premise that she is alive," Webb-McRae said.
Friday's briefing comes the day after the release of recorded 911 calls in which Noema Alavez Pérez, the girl's mother, reported the disappearance. Authorities believe she was abducted, but have thus far been unable to locate the child and have not named any suspects or persons of interest in the case.
In the recordings, Alavez Pérez tells police that people at the park told her someone had probably abducted the 5-year-old and that they saw the girl running, possibly from two men. However, Bridgeton Police Department Chief Michael Gaimari said Friday that after the call, officers interviewed witnesses and narrowed the search to a single suspect.
The working hypothesis is that a light-skinned, clean-shaven male who appeared to be between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-8 inches tall with a thin build was the one who took the girl. Police believe he had acne on his face and wore orange sneakers, red pants and a black t-shirt and drove away in a red van.
Authorities have spoken both to Alavez Pérez's boyfriend and Dulce María's father - who resides in Mexico - and have pored over surveillance video in the area to no avail.
Though Gaimari said no one has been definitively ruled out as a suspect, Webb-McRae reiterated that the girl's family has been cooperative and implored the majority-Latino community to continue sending tips without fear of federal immigration officials.
Those fears were heightened after Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents earlier detained then released Alavez Pérez's boyfriend, a Mexican national.
Webb-McRae, however, reiterated that local agencies work independently from ICE.
"If you are a part of the undocumented immigrant community, you don't have to be fearful of providing information. Our governor, as well as our attorney general, have reiterated what we have already said: In New Jersey, if you are a witness, law enforcement cannot and will not ask you about your immigration status," she said.
Those who may continue to be apprehensive can send tips anonymously by texting TIP411 with "Bridgeton" in the text line, the prosecutor added.
"To date, we are still searching for that key piece of information that we need to lead us to Dulce or to the circumstances surrounding her disappearance," Webb-McRae said.