Get on the bus
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.
ATLANTIC CITY — Marla Scheffler munched on a piece of arugula on a recent Friday, enjoying the product of her care and patience: a vibrant vegetable garden, in the middle of the city, just around the corner from her home.
“If I’m feeling tired and beat up — because I do a lot of physical work as a stagehand — I can come over here and get a handful of parsley and greens, and by the time I get to work and I eat them, I have energy,” said Scheffler, 53, who lives in the South Inlet section of the city and works in the resort and Philadelphia.
Scheffler comes from a family of farmers, and plants everything from cucumbers and sunflowers to squash, kale and potatoes in her plot at the Absecon Lighthouse on Rhode Island Avenue. She’s tended her plot, and the plots of friends, since the garden opened.
The Absecon Lighthouse Community Garden is one of 12 in the AtlantiCare Healthy Garden Network, along with gardens maintained by the Salvation Army on Texas Avenue, the Venice Park Civic Association and Hamilton United Methodist Church on Arctic Avenue. All of them are different, said Laura Engelmann, AtlantiCare’s Community Health and Wellness Manager, who runs the program.
Some are rental boxes, some are open for the community — a “pull a weed, take a tomato” garden, Engelmann said — and some feed into social services, such as the one at the Salvation Army.
Get on the bus
All of them fill a critical need for cheap, fresh produce in a city labeled a “food desert” with no major supermarket at the moment (a $13.5 million ShopRite is planned near Baltic and Indiana avenues) and a poverty rate that hovers around 40%.
Though not a definitive answer to a lack of fresh food in an urban environment, gardening can work as a stopgap measure that comes with ancillary benefits including improved mental health, neighborhood beautification and social cohesion.
“There’s lots of different answers, different ways to combat food insecurity,” Engelmann said, “and gardening is one of those.”
For Scheffler, the rental box provides an alternative means of getting fresh produce. To get to a full-service grocery store, she has to leave the city. And although she found a great market for vegetables — Boom Food Market on Ventnor Avenue — her garden is only a short walk from her home.
“This makes it so much better,” Scheffler said.
Down on the corner
The program was started with a $50,000 donation from the Dave Matthews Band in 2011 when they came to the city for a show. AtlantiCare matched the band’s original contribution, and donations from other visiting acts and residents have sustained the program since then.
The Salvation Army has seen volunteers from AtlantiCare show up at the beginning of the growing season to set up their garden, and at the end of the season to clean it out and ready it for the following year, said Captain Frank Picciotto.
The peppers, cabbage and tomatoes they grow show up in the soup kitchen’s meals and the food pantry’s shelves. Picciotto sees it as a huge benefit for the city’s low-income residents who might be used to cheaper food with higher calorie counts.
They’ve also planted flowers among their vegetables and roses out front on the street, Picciotto said.
“Sometimes people pick the roses,” Picciotto said, laughing. “I know it’s a weird thing, but at least they use them for something good, right?”
That “something good” might be their mental well-being.
University of Pennsylvania researchers in 2018 released a study that analyzed the “greening” of vacant lots in Philadelphia — including removal of trash, planting of grass and trees and monthly maintenance — and how it impacted the mental health of those who live near them. They found a 68% decrease in depression among participants living in neighborhoods below the poverty line.
The article, “Effect of Greening Vacant Land on Mental Health of Community-Dwelling Adults,” cited several other studies showing a relationship between lower rates of depression and time spent in green areas.
Need to feed remains
“Therefore, green space may be a potential buffer between inequitable neighborhood conditions and poor mental health outcomes,” the researchers wrote.
For Jean Muchanic, executive director of the Absecon Lighthouse, the garden has been a welcome presence. The lighthouse hosts talks on nutrition, Muchanic said, and the garden exposes the lighthouse’s 26,000 yearly visitors to the benefits of growing your own food.
“It is important that people realize how important getting close to nature and sourcing some food right in your own neighborhood is,” Muchanic said.
That’s a lesson Scheffler has carried with her since childhood. She raised her kids mostly vegetarian, and used to take them to her garden in Pleasantville. She found the kids immediately took to it, getting dirty and playing with the greens.
Sometimes, Scheffler will go weeks without visiting her garden. Sometimes, she’s there every day, her hands in the dirt, pulling weeds, checking in on her seedlings. Crouched down on the edge of one of the plots she tends, Scheffler observed her herbs, including dill, peppermint, cilantro and basil.
“Rosemary looks really happy,” she said, noting its growth.
She finds meaning in eating food taken directly from the earth.
“It’s really important that people grow their own food again. They’ve kind of stopped, and they don’t really understand,” Scheffler said. “It’s not just at the grocery store. There’s a whole line of people that bring that food there, and a whole lot of care.”
ATLANTIC CITY — City and state officials have joined together with the corporate sector to try to bring the NAACP’s 113th National Convention and its estimated $7 million economic impact to the resort in July 2022.
The NAACP Board of Directors next month will visit Atlantic City to see whether the city would be a good fit, said Jim Wood, president and CEO of Meet AC, the city’s marketing and promotional arm.
The NAACP will make its final decision on where to hold its 2022 annual convention during the early spring of next year, Wood said. It is believed that 1955 was the last time the NAACP held its national convention in Atlantic City.
Meet AC was approached about six months ago about making the effort by representatives of NAACP Region 2, which includes Atlantic City Councilman Kaleem Shabazz, who leads the city’s branch of the organization.
“Kaleem Shabazz was really one of the driving forces behind this, along with the mayor and the CRDA (Casino Reinvestment Development Authority),” Wood said.
Representatives from Meet AC and the city attended the 110th annual convention in July in Detroit, Wood said, adding the convention attracts about 4,000 attendees annually.
ATLANTIC CITY — Leaders of the city’s NAACP chapter do not care how you vote, they just want to see you at the polls.
Meet AC commissioned a video by the 11th Floor Creative Group, based in Atlantic City, to sell the NAACP on the resort. The video is more than eight minutes long and promotes the city, its history and what it has to offer as far as hosting the convention.
There is a historical link between Atlantic City and the Civil Rights Movement, Shabazz says in the video. He mentions the late Fannie Lou Hamer, who famously said before a televised national audience at the 1964 Democratic National Convention in the resort, “I am sick and tired of being sick and tired,” as she sought to unseat Mississippi’s all-white voting delegation in favor of a more representative one.
Adalberto “Bert” Lopez, a former president of the Atlantic City Board of Education, also is among the people featured in the video.
“I loved the idea. Atlantic City is the perfect location. ... This is a perfect time to have this kind of focus on Atlantic City,” Lopez said. “I have been a fan of the NAACP for a very long time. There have also been struggles in the Latino community for civil rights.”
Meet AC also filled out the request for proposals to host the 2022 convention, Wood said.
ATLANTIC CITY — Eighty-seven high school seniors registered to vote Friday as part of a joint effort between Atlantic City High School and the NAACP to register more young voters.
A formal invitation was made to have the approximately 65-member NAACP Board of Directors come to Atlantic City the weekend of Oct. 18 to 20, which has been scheduled, Wood said.
“We think Atlantic City has a lot to offer,” he said. “This would be a big coup for Atlantic City and would open the door for other minority and multicultural conferences.”
Atlantic City is competing against Des Moines, Iowa, and, Wood believes, a West Coast city.
The convention would bring about 4,000 people to the city for multiple days at the height of the summer. The casinos were approached and agreed to offer affordable rates and block out rooms, Wood said, adding the casinos were contacted before the overture was made to the NAACP.
Even though the resort already hosts conventions that draw 4,000 people, the media coverage for an NAACP national convention would be huge, Wood said.
ATLANTIC CITY — The state will move quickly against police departments found to use racial profiling or other means of targeting minorities, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal told a crowd at the St. James A.M.E. Church on Monday night.
The Detroit convention featured appearances by some of the 2020 presidential candidates and speakers who included activists, judges, pastors, CEOs, attorneys, professors and philanthropists.
Gary Hill, president of the Schultz-Hill Foundation and a CRDA board member, said he was asked to appear in the video to talk about what there is to do in the summer in Atlantic City.
“It would be great for the residential, business and cultural community,” said Hill, who is an NAACP member. “It will be difficult (to get the convention).”
The NAACP National Convention is usually held in much bigger cities than Atlantic City, which has fewer than 40,000 residents, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Besides Detroit, it has been hosted by San Antonio, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Philadelphia during the past few years.