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Volunteers searching for missing 5-year-old Bridgeton girl getting stressed, frustrated

BRIDGETON — Two consecutive weekend searches impacted by rain only added to the list of frustrations that are piling up for volunteers looking for a missing 5-year-old girl.

Malicious social media attacks, lost time with their own families, fatigue, lack of support and growing doubts about finding Dulce Maria Alavez safe and unharmed are taking a toll on a small, but dedicated, group of volunteers.

Jackie Rodriguez, of Vineland, has become something of an unofficial spokesperson for the family of Dulce, and it has come at a cost. Since Dulce went missing Sept. 16 and Rodriguez organized a vigil and subsequent search efforts, Rodriguez said she has been attacked by strangers on social media and has even started fearing for own safety.

“I’ve been getting bullied,” she said Sunday, near the makeshift display for Dulce at City Park, while a heavy rain fell off her poncho and baseball cap. “I was giving up, and I said, ‘I can’t give up.’ I started this for the family, and I’m going to try my best.”

Rodiguez said some of the attacks have been so personal that she “looks over her shoulder” constantly and often feels like “someone is always watching me.”

Even those volunteers who have tried to avoid attention are growing weary.

Honorio Chavez, a chaplain for emergency responders in New York, was among a small group of volunteers who left Sunday afternoon after a morning search on a nearby farm yielded little except a visit from law enforcement, who made the group vacate private property.

“We just want to know what happened,” said a tired and exasperated Chavez, of Hopewell Township, Mercer County. “Nobody wants to see this happen to another family.”

Chavez, who has two children of his own who are close in age to Dulce, said his religious beliefs will keep him coming back to assist.

“I’m going to help people when they need it,” he said.

Others have taken matters into their own hands. Vera Dover and Arthur Watson, both of Bridgeton, have been present at all of the organized searches and have conducted excursions on their own.

Dover, who was among those asked to leave the farm Sunday morning, said it was frustrating to think that volunteers were working harder on finding Dulce than law enforcement.

“There’s a child missing,” she said. “It’s not a dog, it’s not a cat. It’s a human being.”

Rodriguez said the lack of support from Bridgeton officials, other than Mayor Albert Kelly, who has joined several of the organized searches, is a source of frustration.

“We’re not getting any help,” she said. “It’s just us, which is fine, but this is their job.”

Watson said he refused to give up hope and noted that even on a rainy day, a good number of volunteers came out Sunday.

“Do I want to be out here? No?” he said. “But I’d want them to help me if it was my child. I can’t fathom going through this. I have to help.”

Dover said that with the length of time since the girl has been missing, it was hard not to imagine the worst.

“I’d rather her be with Jesus than know she’s out there hurting,” she said. “I worry about her well-being.”

Rodriguez, a mother of three who works six days a week, said the amount of time she has devoted to helping find Dulce has cut into how much she spends with her own children. But, her children are supportive, she said. Last week, her 16-year-old son joined in the search effort as crews combed the woods behind City Park.

“They know what this means,” Rodriguez said when asked what she tells her children. “But, it’s tough. But, it makes me want to keep going.”

This coming Sunday, the volunteers will scatter throughout the city and hand out flyers with Dulce’s picture and information.

Dulce disappeared Sept. 16 while playing with her younger brother in the park. The girl’s mother was sitting in her car with an 8-year-old relative when she saw her 3-year-old son crying and pointing to where he last saw Dulce, police said. The girl may have been taken by a man who led her away from the playground where she was playing with her brother, according to police, and into an older model red van.

State Police issued an Amber Alert the next day. She has also been placed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list of missing or kidnapped persons.

A $52,000 reward is being offered for information that leads authorities to Dulce.

Cumberland County Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae has said the investigation, which has included more than 300 law enforcement officers from various agencies, is operating under the presumption Dulce is still alive.

The prosecutor’s office released a sketch of a man reported to be in the park where she was last seen. Webb-McRae earlier this month said the man depicted in the composite sketch is not a suspect or person of interest.

“He is simply a possible witness we want to speak with at this time,” she said.

The man, reported to be wearing a white T-shirt, blue jeans and white baseball hat at the time, was seen with two children under the age of 5. He is Hispanic, about 35, about 5-foot-7 with a slender build, according to the prosecutor.

Anyone with information can call Bridgeton police at 856-451-0033 or the FBI at 800-CALL-FBI, or text information to tip411 with the word “Bridgeton.” Pictures or videos can be uploaded to fbi.gov/alavez.

GALLERY: Vigil for missing Bridgeton girl Dulce Maria Alavez

GALLERY: Vigil for missing Bridgeton girl Dulce Maria Alavez

CRDA plans to improve Boardwalk bathrooms, end 'sloppy housekeeper' reputation

ATLANTIC CITY — If they are lucky, visitors walking on the Boardwalk or visiting Gardner’s Basin can find a functional public restroom.

Many times they can’t, because one or more of the city’s eight public restrooms in the popular tourist spots are closed due to plumbing or other problems, said Casino Reinvestment Development Authority Executive Director Matt Doherty at the October meeting.

The CRDA’s Special Improvement Division, which cleans the restrooms, “has had to close (some of) the bathrooms they are in such bad condition. They have had to bring in porta-johns,” Doherty said at the October meeting, where the CRDA board voted to give the $4.7 million project preliminary approval.

The project will have to come back before the board with more detail before final approval.

“No one can say the last time they were actually renovated,” Doherty said. “They get a lot of usage. If we want to portray ourselves as a family destination, one of the simple things we have to have is bathrooms.”

Board Chairman Bob Mulcahy said SOSH Architects estimated the cost based on updating the interior and doing some underground work, and said it would take six to 18 months to complete the work in phases.

Mulcahy said CRDA will seek financial help on the project from casinos, the city and county.

“My wife used to judge a home by how the bathroom was kept,” said longtime resident Bill Cheatham, who attends almost every CRDA meeting to advocate for returning the beach and Boardwalk to the centerpiece attractions they were in his youth. “Atlantic City is a sloppy housekeeper. This is what people judge you by ... and you are being judged pretty bad, Atlantic City.”

At the same meeting, the board voted to increase the amount it will spend on architectural services through December 2020 from $250,000 to $350,000, to cover the cost of the architectural work on the bathrooms.

Board member Debra P. DiLorenzo, president & CEO at Chamber of Commerce Southern New Jersey, asked what the ancillary costs would be for underground plumbing work, and CRDA’s Director of Project Implementation and Management Tom Meehan said that hasn’t been determined yet.

“Not at this point, we are meeting with the sewer company,” Meehan said. Lateral taps to the sewer infrastructure were not included in the SOSH estimate, he said.

“Has any thought been given to starting with a clean slate?” asked board member Ed Gant. “Renovation sometimes costs more (than new construction).”

Doherty said such decisions would be made on a case-by-case basis.

“Some are beat up, and some are like fortresses outside,” Doherty said.

“We should at least look at it,” Gant said.

Meehan said he would.

“We are at the beginning phases,” Meehan said.

Trump says US forces cornered IS leader in dead-end tunnel

WASHINGTON — Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy leader of the Islamic State group who presided over its global jihad and became arguably the world’s most wanted man, died after U.S. special operators cornered him during a raid in Syria, President Donald Trump said Sunday.

“Last night, the United States brought the world’s No. 1 terrorist leader to justice,” Trump announced at the White House, providing graphic details of al-Baghdadi’s final moments at the helm of the militant organization. “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead.”

In a national address, Trump described the nighttime airborne raid in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, with American special operations forces flying over heavily militarized territory controlled by multiple nations and forces. No U.S. troops were killed in the operation, Trump said.

The death of al-Baghdadi was a milestone in the fight against IS, which brutalized swaths of Syria and Iraq and sought to direct a global campaign from a self-declared “caliphate.” A yearslong campaign by American and allied forces led to the recapture of the group’s territorial holding, but its violent ideology has continued to inspire attacks.

As U.S. troops bore down on al-Baghdadi, he fled into a “dead-end” tunnel with three of his children, Trump said, and detonated a suicide vest, killing himself and the children.

“He was a sick and depraved man, and now he’s gone,” Trump said. “He died like a dog, he died like a coward.”

Al-Baghdadi’s identity was confirmed by a DNA test conducted onsite, Trump said.

Trump had teased a major announcement late Saturday, tweeting that “Something very big has just happened!” By the morning, he was thanking Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq, as well as Kurdish fighters in Syria for their support.

The operation marks a significant foreign policy success for Trump, coming at one of the lowest points in his presidency as he is mired in impeachment proceedings and facing widespread Republican condemnation for his Syria policy.

The recent pullback of U.S. troops he ordered from northeastern Syria raised a storm of bipartisan criticism in Washington that the militant group could regain strength after it had lost vast stretches of territory it had once controlled. Trump said the troop pullout “had nothing to do with this.”

Planning for weeks

Planning for the operation began weeks ago, Trump said, after the U.S. gained unspecified intelligence on al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts. Eight military helicopters flew for more than an hour over territory controlled by Russian and Syrian forces, Trump said, before landing under gunfire at the compound.

Trump vividly described the raid and took extensive questions from reporters for more than 45 minutes Sunday. He said U.S. forces breached the walls of the building because the doors were booby-trapped and chased al-Baghdadi into the tunnel, which partially collapsed after al-Baghdadi detonated the suicide vest. Many homes in Syria, which has been riven by civil war since 2011, have subterranean tunnels or shelters from the fighting.

Trump also revealed that U.S. forces spent roughly two hours on the ground collecting valuable intelligence. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday that the U.S.-led Coalition launched at least one airstrike in western Aleppo aimed at Abu Hassan al-Muhajer, an aide to al=Baghdadi.

Trump said he watched the operation from the White House Situation room as it played out live “as though you were watching a movie.” Trump suggested he may order the release of the video so that the world knows al-Baghdadi did not die of a hero and spent his final moments “crying, “whimpering” and “screaming.”

Trump approved the operation Saturday morning after receiving “actionable intelligence,” Vice President Mike Pence told CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Trump had spent Friday night at Camp David and flew by helicopter Saturday morning to golf at his private Virginia club. He then returned to the White House.

Trump said he teased the announcement as soon as American forces landed safely in a third-country. An Iraqi security official confirmed the U.S. aircraft took off from the Al-Asad air base in western Iraq, where Trump visited American forces in December.

Trump said he did not follow convention in informing leaders on Capitol Hill, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., before the raid, saying he was fearful of leaks.

Pelosi said the House “must be briefed on this raid, which the Russians but not top congressional leadership were notified of in advance, and on the administration’s overall strategy in the region.”

Mission was to capture

Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the mission was to capture or kill the IS leader. While Trump had initially said no Americans were injured, Esper said two service members suffered minor injuries but have already returned to duty. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said a military dog chasing al-Baghdadi was seriously wounded by an explosive blast.

In his address from the White House, Trump suggested that the killing of al-Baghdadi was more significant than the 2011 operation ordered by his predecessor, President Barack Obama, that killed al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Trump later repeated a false claim that he predicted the threat posed by bin Laden in a book before the 2001 attacks.

He also praised Russia and the Syrian government — American foes — and defended his ban on entry to the U.S. from some Muslim-majority countries. He called European allies “a tremendous disappointment” for not repatriating foreign IS fighters.

Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, said al-Baghdadi’s remains would be dealt with in accordance with Islamic law and buried at sea in the same way that bin Laden’s were.

Praise for the military operation was swift, coming from American allies and even the president’s political opponents. In congratulating the U.S. forces and intelligence officials, but not Trump, former Vice President Joe Biden warned that IS “remains a threat to the American people and our allies.”

But one counterterrorism expert said al-Baghdadi’s death is not the end of IS.

“Counterterrorism must be part of the strategy, but reducing the strategy to just special operations raids and drone targeting, as this administration seems to want to, guarantees a forever war,” said Katherine Zimmerman of the American Enterprise Institute. She said extremists’ strength and staying power lies in the support they have locally among the disenfranchised and economically deprived populations.

Al-Baghdadi’s presence in the village a few kilometers from the Turkish border was surprising, even if some IS leaders are believed to have fled to Idlib after losing their last sliver of territory in Syria to U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in March.

Iraqi officials said Sunday they passed information that helped ascertain al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts to the U.S. from the wife of an Iraqi aide to al-Baghdadi, as well as al-Baghdadi’s brother-in-law, who was recently arrested by the Iraqis. The officials weren’t authorized to publicly discuss intelligence operations and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Al-Baghdadi had led IS for the last five years, presiding over its ascendancy as it cultivated a reputation for beheadings and attracted tens of thousands of followers.

to a sprawling and self-styled caliphate in Iraq and Syria. He remained among the few IS commanders still at large despite multiple claims in recent years about his death and even as his so-called caliphate dramatically shrank, with many supporters who joined the cause either imprisoned or jailed.

His exhortations were instrumental in inspiring attacks in the heart of Europe and in the United States. Shifting away from the airline hijackings and other mass-casualty attacks that came to define al-Qaida, al-Baghdadi and other IS leaders supported smaller-scale acts of violence that would be harder for law enforcement to prepare for and prevent.

They encouraged jihadists who could not travel to the caliphate to kill where they were, with whatever weapon they had at their disposal. In the U.S., multiple extremists have pledged their allegiance to al-Baghdadi on social media, including a woman who along with her husband committed a 2015 massacre at a holiday party in San Bernardino, California.

With a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head, al-Baghdadi was far less visible in recent years, releasing only sporadic audio recordings, including one just last month in which he called on members of the extremist group to do all they could to free IS detainees and women held in jails and camps.

The purported audio was his first public statement since last April, when he appeared in a video for the first time in five years. In that video, which included images of the extremist leader sitting in a white room with three others, al-Baghdadi praised Easter Day bombings that killed more than 250 people and called on militants to be a “thorn” against their enemies.

Redevelopment plans move forward for the Margate Causeway in Egg Harbor Township

EGG HARBOR TOWNSHIP — Seven years after Hurricane Sandy made landfall and destroyed Sea Village Marina and Gifford Marine, improvements could soon be on the way to make them habitable again.

A redevelopment plan for the Margate Causeway, which includes the Sea Village Marina and Gifford Marine, was approved earlier this month by the Township Committee.

James Garth Sr., who is the township's planning board chairman, was pleased that the Township Committee accepted his board's recommended redevelopment plan.

"The area is blighted and needs upgrades and changes," Garth said. "It will be an asset to the township (after redevelopment)."

Sea Village Marina and the nearby Gifford Marine area have been deemed by the township as in need of redevelopment because of their outdated and obsolete designs, the plan said.

Proposed projects can qualify for tax and other financial incentives if an area is designated as being in need of redevelopment.

The plan also calls for redeveloping the former Sea Village Marina as a residential development consisting of townhomes and multi-family residential units with dockage. The former Gifford Marine site is to be developed in a similar fashion with multi-family residential units with dockage.

"The Margate Causeway since Superstorm Sandy has been in dire need of cleanup and redevelopment," said council member Laura Pfrommer. "That area is beautiful and has incredible potential."

Both Sea Village Marina and Gifford Marine had been used as marina businesses since the mid-1950s. Previous owners include Corky Campbell, Baywatch Marina LLC and Floating Homes Marina LLC.

The current owner is Bayview Marina LLC., which has Joseph Ventresca as one of its principals, said attorney Stephen Nehmad, of Nehmad Perillo Davis & Goldstein, which represents Bayview Marina.

Bayview paid $950,000 to previous owner, Floating Homes Marina LLC for the property on Feb. 17, 2017. The assessment was $834,200, which included $773,400 for the land and $60,800 for improvements on it, the assessor's office said. They will pay $26,986 in taxes this year, according to the township tax collector.

Oceanview Marina LLC purchased Gifford Marine from Casaba Real Estate for $250,000 on Dec. 11, 2015, the tax assessor's office said. Ventresca is also one of the principals of Oceanview Marina.

Houseboats and the dilapidated marinas were extensively damaged by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Patty Fulton, 61, of Cherry Hill, Camden County, remembers the good times before Hurricane Sandy.

Fulton and her sister, Carolyn Pryor, of Philadelphia, joined together to buy a nonmotorized, two-bedroom, one-bath houseboat in 2005 for $132,000.

Fulton made use of her houseboat during the summer from 2005 until 2012.

After that, a previous Sea Village Marina owner barred houseboat owners from accessing their properties. The docks and other parts of the infrastructure and utilities were so badly damaged by Sandy, it was deemed unsafe to have people on the marina, Fulton said last year.

Now that a redevelopment plan has been approved, Fulton looks to have a crane operator lift her houseboat out of the water. She needs to hire someone to determine the amount of damage her houseboat suffered and whether it is worth it to fix it or to just write it off as a loss.

"Whatever transpired since the hurricane, we had no control over, but at the end of the day, my family and my sister's family lost a home," Fulton said.

The redevelopment plan allows for: transient, seasonal and permanent year-round dockage, but limited to the total number of pre-existing live-aboard and houseboats; a full-service restaurant with alcohol service and sales; single-family attached townhomes and multi-family apartments.

These plans fall in line with what the current owner said last year about what he wants to do with the property.

With the redevelopment plan approved, the next step in the process is for the owner to develop specific site plans, Nehmad said. The owner will have to make it through the township's planning board review process and work with the state's Department of Environmental Protection, he said.

The site has been ravaged by many coastal storms and more than 30 years of developers' neglect, Nehmad said.

The current owner is engaged in a multi-million dollar undertaking that will lead to new marinas being built and a relatively small residential community, Nehmad said.

The goal is to present concept site review plans to the township planning board and the DEP next year, Nehmad said.

"Hopefully, we're going into the ground sooner rather than later," Nehmad said.