Loved ones gathered Saturday night to hold a vigil for a missing 5-year-old girl who disappeared earlier this week from a New Jersey park. First responders and those helping in the investigation are expected to attend.
A reward for information leading to Dulce María Alavez climbed to $35,000 Friday as a search that involved more than 100 local and federal officers failed to turn up the missing child.
Officials expanded the search radius by more than a mile but still failed to locate Alavez, who police believe was kidnapped by a man as she played at Bridgeton City Park around 4 p.m. Monday, Bridgeton Police Department Chief Michael Gaimari said.
"I'm not going to go into anything as a reference to what was recovered or anything like that. It's all part of the investigation," Gaimari told reporters during a Friday afternoon press conference. He refused to answer follow-up questions.
An official for Immigration and Customs Enforcement confirmed to NBC10 that the boyfriend of Alavez's mother, who is not the girl's biological father, had been detained by ICE and then released. However, the official would not confirm whether the boyfriend was in ICE custody at the time of the disappearance.
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," the official said, refusing also to confirm whether the investigation into the boyfriend involves Alavez's disappearance.
Earlier in the day, local and federal officers, including some from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, met at a baseball field at Bridgeton High School before fanning out in an ultimately fruitless search for the girl. The search came the day after the girl'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," she 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. Latinos make up about 51% of Bridgeton's approximately 25,000 residents, according to the latest census figures.
On Friday, Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae thanked members of the community for their help in the investigation and asked that they 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 Alavez's father, who Chief Gaimari previously said is believed to be out of the country.
One lead police have is that a man led Alavez from the playground to a red van with a sliding side door and tinted windows. She was placed in the back seat by the man who drove away with her at about 4:20 p.m.
An Amber Alert, issued when officials suspect a child has been abducted, went out Tuesday night for the missing girl.
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."