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Investigators ‘remain hopeful’ that missing 5-year-old girl is still alive, prosecutor says

BRIDGETON, N.J. -- New Jersey investigators are "still searching for that key piece of information" needed to find a missing 5-year-old girl, Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said Friday.

It's been over two weeks since Dulce Maria Alavez was reported missing at a playground in September. In a 911 call released Thursday, the girl's mother said people at the park told her that her son was crying because two males threw his ice cream to the ground and ran off with Dulce.

Since Dulce's disappearance, more than 300 officers have searched for her in over 200 locations and have processed more than 1,000 tips, Webb-McRae said. Officer have investigated vehicles that matched the description witnesses provided to police, she said.

"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, though she did add that authorities do not know Dulce's location.

Bridgeton Police Chief Michael Gaimari said no one at this point has been cleared of suspicion.

"Nobody's been cleared in this investigation until the child is located, and until we can determine what happened to the child, nobody's clear," Gaimari said.

New Jersey State Police and federal investigators are helping with the search for Dulce, Gaimari said.

Witnesses saw the girl running, mother says

The search began when officers responded to the Bridgeton city park's ball fields and playground area for a report of a missing child at about 4:50 p.m. on September 16.

The girl's mother told police that Dulce was playing on swings with her 3-year-old brother as the mother remained about 30 yards away in her vehicle with an 8-year-old relative, police said.

The mother told police that the 3-year-old returned to her vehicle without his sister, and she was unable to locate her daughter, police said.

In the 911 call, Dulce's mother told police that people told her they saw Dulce "running through some houses in the back." Gaimari clarified during the press conference that there are storage buildings for public works that border the playground.

"They said they saw two men, a black guy and they saw a Mexican man with two kids," the mother told officers.

Officers were on scene within seconds interviewing witnesses and discovered a lot of what the mother told officers initially, based on witness reports, was hearsay, Webb-McRae said.

"That's one of the reasons why there was a delay in the Amber Alert. We have to vet that information verify the information in order to satisfy the requirements of putting it out," Gaimari said.

A statewide Amber Alert described the possible suspect as a light-skinned, Hispanic male between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-8, a thin build, no facial hair and acne on his face. He was wearing orange sneakers, red pants and a black shirt, police said.

The Amber Alert said Dulce was taken by a man driving a red van with tinted windows and a sliding passenger side door. The information on the van was the best piece of information investigators got at the time, though the information was given to investigators by a "child of tender years," Webb-McRae said.

"I will not discount it, I will not ask the public to disregard it," she said.

Dulce was last seen wearing a yellow shirt with a koala bear on the front, black and white checkered long pants with a flower design, and white sandals, police said. She is 3-foot-5 and weighs 40 pounds, with black hair and brown eyes.

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