The whole city is looking for Avonte Oquendo. There are regular announcements on trains and in the subway. There are missing posters on lampposts, buses and store windows. People have taken to social media to look for Oquendo.
It has been two weeks since the 14-year-old autistic teenager walked out of his school, the Center Boulevard School in Long Island City, Queens. He has not been seen since. The heartrending search for him has gripped the city. The agonizing, widespread search has continued beyond New York City with help from officials in New Jersey and Long Island, and a reward of up to $70,000 has been offered for his safe return.
On Oct. 4, Oquendo, a resident of Rego Park who is unable to communicate verbally, was seen on surveillance video walking out of the Center Boulevard School, located on 51st Avenue, and running across the street. The 5-foot-3-inch Black teen was last seen on video wearing a gray striped shirt, black jeans and black sneakers.
The teen’s fascination with trains led police and transit workers to search underground tracks on Saturday halting repairs and construction, according to reports. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has deployed about 100 cops and a detective task force in the search of Oquendo.
“I believe that he is still alive and we are going full force to locate him,” NYPD Chief of Department Phillip Banks III told the AmNews at press time on Wednesday. “We are using an enormous amount of resources to try and find him. We have a detective task force and a patrol task force coordinating with aviation, harbor, emergency services. We are connecting with all law enforcement [from] Suffolk County, Nassau County and New Jersey.”
In an interview with the AmNews, Daniel Oquendo Sr., Avonte Oquendo’s father, asked New Yorkers to help in the search. Several volunteers have been looking around the city for his son.
“There are so many blocks out here. It would take an individual about three minutes to come outside and walk around the block one time,” he said. “Everyone is coming together; we have a lot of volunteers out here.”
Daniel Oquendo said that his son would be able to get food if he needed it. Having grown up with five brothers, Avonte Oquendo knows how to survive. “If he was hungry, he would take food. I’m sure he’s got a little survival skills when it comes to that. Growing up with big brothers in the house, he was always snatching food. He wouldn’t let himself starve, but I really don’t think … It’s been 12 days. I really think if he was still outside, someone would have seen him by now. But we are definitely trying to look at every scenario out there.
“We are a very close family, and we’re trying to hold it down just for the boys,” Daniel Oquendo said. “They are very close, and they had a lot to do with his upbringing. We are very attached, so if we lose him, it’s over for me.
“We are definitely trying to look at every different scenario out there. If you see him, keep him around you. He’s a runner, and he loves to run. Keep him near you. Entice him with sweets—any kind of candy to entice him and keep him nearby. Keep him in your sights. Approach him with caution. He doesn’t like strangers; he shies away from contact. Definitely—you can’t approach him aggressively.”
Anyone who sees Avonte Oquendo should approach him with caution. As the search continues, the family is trying to stay strong.
“We break down,” Daniel Oquendo said. “His mother is barely holding up; we are trying to be strong. We don’t even know what’s going to happen. We are a very close family, and we trying to hold it down just for our boys. They are very close. We are basically on the grind trying to get through this.”
The love is defiantly being felt around the city as everyone hopes for Avonte Oquendo’s safe return. Daniel Oquendo said that the family has received help by way of donations from sources including Hotel Z, Boston Market, Coca-Cola and Con Edison, among others.
Daniel Oquendo and his family have held several rallies and candlelight vigils in Long Island City.
The family and their attorney have reportedly filed a notice of claim for a lawsuit with Comptroller John Liu’s office against the school that was supposed to be responsible for Avonte Oquendo’s safety.
“It’s obvious that the school is liable,” said Daniel Oquendo Jr., Avonte Oquendo’s older brother.
According to Daniel Oquendo Jr., the school did not notify the family about his brother’s disappearance until about an hour and a half later—nor did the security guard stop his brother from running away.
Natalie Wilson of the Black and Missing Foundation Inc. said that she is pleased with the outpouring of media attention Avonte Oquendo has received. The Black and Missing Foundation advocates for missing children of color who are often not represented in the media.
“I am grateful that we are seeing a media presence for Avonte,” she said. “There has also been a great social media outreach. I hope that the family continues to hold onto hope that he will be found and brought back home.”
Wilson added that she does not believe the same attention would be given to a missing Black 14-year-old if he was not autistic.
The reward to find Avonte Oquendo was $5,000, but the organization Autism Speaks and an anonymous donor recently raised it to $70,000.
Volunteers who want to help with the search should go to 1-50 51st Ave. on Center Street in Long Island City.
“We are right in front of the school—1-50 51st Ave. and Seventh Street. We’re right at the rivers edge,” said Daniel Oquendo Sr.
When asked how his Avonte Oquendo’s mother is doing, he replied, “Everybody is drawing their strength from us, so if we break down, we don’t even know what is going to happen.”
The elder Oquendo asked for volunteers, “a mass amount of people to walk around the block. Who’s to say who can run into who.
“It is very nice that everyone is coming together,” he said.
If anyone has seen Avonte Oquendo or knows about his whereabouts, please contact the NYPD Crime Stoppers at 800-577-9200, notify Borough Queens North at 718-520-9200 or call 347-277-7948.