BRIDGETON — In some ways, the investigation into the disappearance of 5-year-old Dulce Maria Alavez is in its early stages, and in some ways it is getting awfully late, according to forensic and criminal justice experts.
The two weeks that have passed since she disappeared from City Park have greatly decreased the odds of finding her alive. But there are no doubt more leads to pursue, said Arlene Gonzalez, an associate professor of criminal justice at Stockton University.
Investigators are “probably very much in the collecting evidence, neighborhood canvassing, diving into the family and people who knew the child or had interactions with this child,” Gonzalez said. “It’s a big job. I’m sure they have not come anywhere near exhausting any leads. They are probably discovering leads at this point.”
Dulce disappeared minutes after her mom let her out of a parked car with her little brother at the park, and the two children walked about 200 feet to a playground.
On Friday, Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said her office, the Bridgeton Police Department, State Police and the FBI are continuing to actively investigate Dulce’s disappearance. Earlier in the week, the FBI said it had placed Dulce on the FBI’s Most Wanted list of missing or kidnapped persons. There is a $35,000 reward for anyone with information leading to the girl’s whereabouts.
And McRae has asked anyone who was in the park the afternoon of Sept. 16 to share any photos or videos taken there, no matter how innocuous, in the hopes of garnering some leads. Authorities have said they are also seeking information in Mexico, where Dulce’s father lives.
Stranger abductions are extremely rare.
Of more than 25,000 people under 21 reported missing in the U.S. in 2018, only 1% — about 250 — were taken by strangers, according to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The vast majority were teenage runaways (92%) or taken by family members (4%). The rest were 18- to 20- year-olds (3%) or reported lost (1%).
Kimberlee Sue Moran, associate teaching professor of forensics at Rutgers University in Camden, said there is likely some relationship between Dulce and whoever took her.
“It’s likely to be someone who has some sort of connection,” Moran said, either a family member or someone known to the family.
While Moran said people should still hold out hope for Dulce’s safe return, they also should prepare for the worst.
“Sadly, as more time passes, the likelihood of her being found alive is going down and down,” Moran said.
If abducted by someone intent on harming her, she is likely not to have been taken far, she said.
“From a study of cases in which the individual was not found alive, the remains are found 1.5 to 5 miles from the place the person was last seen,” Moran said.
“That doesn’t mean (out-of-state travel) doesn’t happen. But people’s patterns of behavior tend to be predictable,” Moran said.
In a separate study of about 300 missing people, when the remains were found, about half were determined to have died within the first day, and 92% within four days, she said.
Moran said investigators are no doubt creating all possible links between Dulce and “everyone she could possibly know. One by one they follow each individual — figuratively — to figure out anyone and everyone who could link to this incident.”
Moran was trained in the United Kingdom, where she worked on a case of two 10-year-old girls who disappeared while walking after school. Their bodies were not recovered for months, she said, and eventually a school custodian was found to have committed the murders.
Authorities are generally guarded in their release of information about missing child cases in the U.S., compared to in the U.K., Moran said.
“I personally am a big believer in using media as a tool and being as transparent as possible,” she said. “I don’t understand why they don’t say more about it. The U.K. has such a different approach to abductions and investigations.”
In the U.K. it’s routine to do a re-enactment of the day a child abduction occurred, with a child matching the description of the one who disappeared going to the scene where they were last seen about the same time of day and the same day of week.
“They recreate it as best they can from the information provided,” Moran said, adding they share videos on social media “and include everybody in the area that day in the hopes of jogging somebody’s memory.”
Statistics can be sobering.
Between 2011 and 2015, about 45% of children missing six to 11 months were recovered, either alive or dead. That means in 55% of cases, “we have nothing,” Gonzalez said.
Investigators also are likely to be checking databases held by the FBI and others to see whether any DNA matches show up for Dulce, Gonzalez said.
Eleven-year-old Mark Himbaugh, of the Del Haven section of Middle Township, disappeared Nov. 25, 1991, after biking from his home to watch a brush fire and visiting Cape May County Park South. The case has never been solved, in almost 28 years, but law enforcement investigators say they are still following up on leads and working the case.
Sometimes there is good news.
A 5-year-old girl abducted from the William C. Bryant School in Philadelphia in 2013 by a woman claiming to be her mother was found alive the next day at an Upper Darby playground wearing just a T-shirt.
She had been raped, and her 19-year-old abductor, Christina Regusters, was sentenced to 40 years to life for the crime.
“The woman was dressed head to toe in Muslim garb. That’s probably why the girl went with her,” Moran said. Her abductor had worked in an after school daycare center used by the victim.
Anyone possessing information about Dulce’s case can call 800-CALL-FBI, hit option 4 and then option 8 or text information to tip411, beginning the text with Bridgeton. Anyone with video or pictures may upload them to fbi.gov/alavez.