“My gut tells me that Avonte’s OK, and someone is taking care of him. I am praying that they just give him up,” Daniel Oquendo, Avonte Oquendo’s father, told the AmNews on Wednesday.
Nearly three weeks have passed since the disappearance of autistic 14-year-old Avonte Oquendo, and the search for the missing teen has not let up, even as the NYPD lightens up on its efforts.
Commissioner Ray Kelly announced on Tuesday that the NYPD would slim down on the number of resources being used to find Avonte Oquendo. A reported 100 officers were working on the case, using helicopters, divers and dogs. However, while the NYPD has decided to scale back on the search for the lost teen, the family says they will increase their scores of volunteers, who have come from all over.
“I wasn’t surprised. That’s police protocol,” said Daniel Oquendo. “I knew that they would have to pull back at some point. But we and the volunteers are still going to keep going out searching for him. We have got a lot of volunteers, and if they scale back, we will just scale up.”
On Saturday, dozens of volunteers went out and searched Central Park. Prime searcher Donnell Nichols, working with the Office of Emergency Management and their Community Emergency Response Team, set up teams of volunteers to go all around the park with fliers and ask people if they had seen Avonte Oquendo.
Volunteers searched around the buildings in the park, around the fountain, the zoo, in large open spaces and around all the food sources. Nichols told volunteers that if Avonte Oquendo was hungry, he might just hang around the food carts hoping to get something to eat. People searched for him all day and well into the night. Some went on to Queens. There, volunteers searched the streets, the desolate industrial parts of Vernon Boulevard—Jackson Avenue. Some people went right by the water of the East River, calling out Avonte Oquendo’s name.
“Every day is another day he is not here, another day when you don’t eat normally, you don’t sleep normally,” Daniel Oquendo told the AmNews.
While Kelly has been to the makeshift search headquarters site, he has not spoken with Daniel Oquendo, who said, “Well, Avonte is not his child. I wouldn’t expect him to do anything.
“We are hanging in there,” said Oquendo. “It is tough, but I am just trying to stay positive. I am here for Avonte.”
Not only did Con Ed and Time Warner hook up the tents with juice, the Internet, phones and fax machines, but some kind soul donated two RVs: “One for the family and one for volunteers. The response of the people has been amazing. We want people to just come out and join the search parties because we will continue to step it up.”
The lawsuit that the Oquendo family filed within days of Avonte running out of the school surprised many, but Daniel Oquendo said he was not part of that move. “I am not talking about the lawsuit. I am out here looking for my son,” Daniel Oquendo said. “I don’t know the numbers or whoever is involved. Those who are wrong know they are wrong.”
Last weekend, Oquendo’s family made an appearance at the National Action Network (NAN), where the Rev. Al Sharpton announced a “red alert” along with NAN members pledging to canvas the city for the teen.
Daniel Oquendo and Avonte Oquendo’s mother, Vanessa Fontaine, pleaded with people to keep their eyes open for their son, who ran out of a school in Long Island City, Queens. He is nonverbal and unable to communicate.
“Everybody, take the time out to look—five minutes. Come out your house, back around the block. Be aware of your surroundings,” said Daniel Oquendo. “When you’re going to work, walking to the train, just keep your eyes open.”
As the search has intensified, it has gained national attention, with the family making several media appearances, including on CNN and BET. Law enforcement predicts that Avonte Oquendo could be anywhere in the city or even outside of the city. The reward money for Avonte Oquendo’s return is nearly $90,000.
Lead searcher Nichols has been part of the manhunt to find Avonte Oquendo since the Monday after his disappearance. Nichols said he got involved during the first 48 hours of the search. Since the start of his involvement in the case, Nichols has gathered volunteers and put together search parties.
“There are people coming from all over the country—from Florida, Arizona, Texas and Rhode Island,” he said. “People are coming from all over the place to help out and have brought their specialties to the table. Everybody is waiting on word from the family on what they want to do next.”
Nichols has been working nonstop over the last couple of weeks bringing in city agencies and law enforcement. Along with leading the search, he’s been at the helm of the technological and logistical aspects of the case.
“A lot of people are drained mentally and physically. More than anything, everyone just wants Avonte, and we want him home. We have not found clues or leads or something to make us feel positive, and its draining at this point. Everyone is feeling drained but mustering up the ability to keep looking,” he said.
“We are staying positive,” said Fontaine on Saturday night in Queens. “We are praying that Avonte is safe. We want him to come home.”
“Tenemos fe … we are hopeful,” said Isabella Santos, a concerned mother of three, who told the AmNews that she has been praying for the family everyday.
Daniel Oquendo said, “The bottom line is, everybody is helping everybody, and that is a beautiful thing. Once society gets it right, this is how it should be.”
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